The Heart Is Hollow

The Heart Is Hollow

“The Fantasticks” fails the test of time

If you have any cherished memories of “The Fantasticks,” the famous off-Broadway musical that lasted nearly 42 years and played 17,162 performances at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, I would suggest that to keep them intact, you avoid the dreary, over-processed reproduction now at the Snapple Theater Center. Ironically, this show about the romance of memory and innocence is—in its current revival—jaded, plastic, and dull, and while you may “Try to Remember,” the sad reality, as the lyric goes, is that “the heart is hollow.”

I first saw the original production at Sullivan Street when I was just shy of 11, having nearly worn out my parents’ recording. I was hooked for life—or so I thought—swept into the world of innocence and romance. Even with subsequent productions elsewhere around the country, I always returned to that place of pure spirit and excitement at encountering the world and the inevitable adaptations required when one faces the harsher realities of the world as it really is. There was something about the poetry that even as I aged and my perspective changed never failed to resonate.

Until now. While the original book and lyric author Tom Jones has lovingly recreated Word Baker’s original staging, what was one time “scenic may be cynic by today,” to quote the opening of act two. There isn’t a real emotion evident in any of the performances. It’s all slick and surface, a facsimile, a replica robbed of all intrinsic value. It’s hard to describe the depth of disappointment; and it led me to wonder whether it’s possible to mount a credible production of this story of two innocent lovers in today’s cultural environment.

I do know that it was out of the grasp of this attempt. Sara Jean Ford plays Luisa from the outset with a kind of knowing sophistication that makes her longing for “Much More” suspect, her innocence an apparent act to manipulate the boy, Matt. Ford has a fundamentally decent soprano, but it tends to go flat and strident on the high notes, and she is anything but virginal, despite the white dress and blonde hair. Surely, there is a young soprano who could carry off the first act of this show and deliver the romanticized simplicity Ford lacks.

Santino Fontana is largely bland as Matt. His youthful heroism seems hyperactive rather than passionate, as if it’s not worldly experience he needs but a good dose of Ritalin. Burke Moses is simply dreadful as El Gallo. His voice is wobbly in the bass notes, and he is as false and mannered as Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast,” a Disney parody of manhood he did quite well. Moses also shows that for all its simplicity, the poetry of the book is quite complex, and he is not up to it, making some of the sweetest lines ever written for the musical theater sound like second-rate Dr. Seuss. His superficial posing and mannered machismo are an inexcusable misreading of the role. He shows neither affection for the innocence of Luisa and Matt nor any sense, really, of how the world changes us. Without that wisdom, the center of the show collapses.

As the fathers, Leo Burmester and Martin Vidnovic are merely adequate, but they haven’t found any emotional basis in their banter so they become mechanical and one musters no attachment to them. Robert R. Oliver as Mortimer is simply embarrassing, a Looney Tunes comic who has gone insane, instead of an old second banana clinging to his past glory—an ability to die onstage. In fact, the sole acceptable performance in the piece comes from Thomas Bruce (aka author and director Tom Jones) as Henry, the old actor. Only he has the requisite simplicity and honesty that makes these unapologetically cardboard characters work.

As he disappears into his trunk for the final time, Henry says pleadingly, “Remember me in the light.” It is the real theme of the piece, that no matter what ravages time wreaks upon us, remembering the sunlit days can soften the blows. A return to romance and innocence can give us a kind of peace, even if we know it’s an illusion. It is bittersweet to be sure and as false as the cardboard moon El Gallo hangs for Luisa and Matt, but, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who also found heart-piercing truth in simplicity wrote, “It is the fate that man was born for.” We do our best in the present, bolstered by what strength we can take from the past.

This is what can make “The Fantasticks” so fundamentally relevant to audiences at any time of life. That’s worth trying to remember.