Race to See The Fantasticks

fantasticks_nick_spangler.jpgThe Fantasticks I can't even begin to guess how many musicals I have seen over the years. I arrived in New York from Cleveland in the late '60s and have pretty much been here since. Yet, somehow, I never got around to seeing The Fantasticks. It's not like there weren't opportunities. The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway in 1960; I was still a kid at the time and, as I said, not yet in New York; but, it ran for almost 42 years, finally closing in early 2002. I had seen at least part of the TV version that aired many years ago, and it didn't appeal to me at the time; that might have played a role in my never quite getting around to seeing this musical. When it re-opened at a midtown theater in 2006, I did think it was time to finally pay a visit. But it actually took a reality television show, The Amazing Race, to provide the final impetus to see this classic musical. Let me explain. I don't watch much reality TV, but The Amazing Race, which has won several Emmy awards for best reality series, is a show I have grown to enjoy. The winner of last season's Race was Nick Spangler, a young actor who ran the race very effectively with his sister, and he also happens to be one of the leads in The Fantasticks. I was rooting for Nick and his sister in The Amazing Race and, since I already had been thinking about catching The Fantasticks, Nick's presence provided the final push. I'm glad to have finally seen this show. I found it to be sweet, charming, and touching. Just about everyone knows its most famous Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt song, "Try to Remember," which was performed by Jerry Orbach in the original off-Broadway production. But the score has several more first-rate songs, including some you may know, though you might find yourself saying, "I never knew that was from The Fantasticks." Among those songs is the pretty "Soon It's Gonna Rain," sung by the musical's young lovers. In Act Two, we hear the stirring "I Can See It," a song that I know Liza Minnelli has performed. As the story nears its conclusion, there is another lovely and familiar song for the young couple, "They Were You." The show is an allegorical fable about young love seemingly overcoming parental objections. But, to my surprise, there is more to it than that. The show has shades of musicals that would come many years later, such as Pippin, which also features magic as well as the element of a troupe of players putting on a show, and even Into the Woods, which, like The Fantasticks, has a second act that basically deals with "what happens AFTER 'happily ever after.'" There is real wisdom, plus some tongue-in-cheek humor, to go with the charm, and the staging is a lot more clever than I would have expected. There are a few slow spots, plus some slapstick I could have done without, but ultimately, the combination of the score and the warmth of the story win out. The cast does fine work. The Orbach role of El Gallo, who is also the narrator of the piece, is played by Lewis Cleale, who is a powerful singer and a dashing presence. It is hard not to be touched by "Try to Remember," and Cleale does nicely with the song. Spangler proves to be winning and appealing as the young leading man, with a lovely, strong tenor singing voice and a nice comic flair. Betsy Morgan brings a fetching playfulness to the role of Spangler's love interest. I'm glad I finally caught up with The Fantasticks. I certainly can now understand the appeal of a show that presents universal themes with such a sweet blend of charm and melody. - James Miller The Snapple Theater Center 210 West 50th Street at Broadway Monday at 8pm, Wednesday at 2pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday 2pm and 8pm, Sunday at 3pm and 7:15pm jim_miller.jpgMr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.