There's a reason why "The Fantasticks" has become the longest running production of any kind in the history of American theater.
Since making its debut in a Greenwich Village playhouse off-Broadway nearly 60 years ago, the show — with its peculiar but endearing characters and offbeat romantic charm — has long been a staple of theaters around the country.
That popularity was on full display at Camelot Theatre Friday night as its new production of "The Fantasticks" opened to a full and enthusiastic house. The plot of the show remains simple enough: Two young people who live next door to one another have fallen in love, but are separated by a wall. From this fairly pedestrian scenario springs various chaotic shenanigans — fake kidnappings, crazed traveling actors, scheming parents and changes of heart abound as the two admirers set about finding, then losing, then finding each other again.
Luisa (Keely McLean) and Matt (Cody Pettit) are the sweethearts in question.
As Luisa, McLean is the latest in a long line of ingenues for which Camelot is a reliable testing ground. Her Luisa is outstanding, if disconcerting, the kind of nutty, sheltered borderline type from which most suitors would (or should) run screaming. McLean's Luisa dances around the confines of her father's garden in a makeshift tutu, launching into frequent dead faints and changing her moods at the slightest provocation. McLean clearly has a strong background in dance, and her acting and singing are on point; she seems poised to fill the ghillies left vacant by Camelot's resident "it" girl, Kendra Taylor, who has retired from the stage.
In the male lead, Pettit plays Matt with velocity — a perplexed Seymour Krelborn-type, nerdy, bespectacled (initially) and unsteady. A sweet fellow who doesn't seem to realize that Luisa is the kind of girl who appreciates a firm hand — this is made evident later in the play — Pettit is an excellent performer with a wonderful singing voice and a strong grasp of character.
As the erratic fathers of the two lovebirds, Peter Griffin and Sean Warren are hilarious, playing Hucklebee and Bellomy, respectively. Both men are primarily obsessed with their own gardening, and there is much ado made about kumquats, avocados and the merits of the earth as the two swan their way through various numbers. These patres familias seem far less concerned with the fact that 20-year-old Matt is on the brink of engaging in flagrante delectico with the 16-year-old Luisa than they are with the state of their begonias; this alone is an indication that the entire piece is intended as a kind of absurdist hallucination.
Supporting this theme is the outlandish and mustache-twirling villain of the piece, El Gallo (Justin Tyler Martin), who spends the entire play creeping around in a black capelet. Martin has the best singing voice in the cast, and he takes to his role with relish. El Gallo's "death" scene during a phony kidnapping is easily the most hilarious moment in a show filled with hilarity.
As Henry and Mortimer — two hammy traveling actors who are roped into the sitcom — Becky Durango and Janina Brown are both fabulous, although it is Brown — dressed bizarrely in an animal onesie and offering her characters signature death scene as a frequent and well-received theme — who steals most every scene in which she appears. Lastly, Brianna Gowland, who also directs, makes a wonderful Mute.
The show is a delight, and the ensemble cast is made up entirely of strong players. Nobody drops the ball. This happy fact, combined with recognizable songs and hilarious dialogue that have made "The Fantasticks" so wildly popular, makes it appear that Camelot has another hit on its hands.
"The Fantasticks" plays at Camelot Theatre in Talent through Sept. 24.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is an Ashland Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.