Theater Review: How successful is Cinnabar’s “cleverly altered” Fantasticks?

Conspiring to spark romance between their children, Mr. Bellomy and Mrs. Hucklebee make believe that there’s a dreadful feud between them, driving the two to build a wall separating their gardens. As expected, the young people are fascinated by what is forbidden, and take to whispering professions of affection through the harsh stone. Later, in what is meant to be the coup de grâce that will end their “feud,” the parents hire a professional actor/scoundrel to stage a kidnapping of Luisa, expecting it will prompt Matt to leap in and rescue her, thus providing a happy reason for the Hucklebees and Belloys to tear down the wall.

The plan, or course, does not come to fruition as intended, leading to unforeseen consequences.

This, obviously enough, is Tom Jones and Harvey’s Schmidt’s 1960 musical “The Fantasticks,” running through June 24 at Cinnabar Theater.

Luisa Bellomy (Carolyn Bacon) hovers with the restless enthusiasm of a teenager, dreaming of living as a princess with a hero to keep her safe. Skipping and whirling in the song “Round and Round,” her eloquent dancing and overwhelmed expressions are a memorable commentary on the power of compassion over ignorance. Matt Hucklebee (Lucas Brandt) is consumed with desire for Luisa’s beauty, rather than who she is as a person, writing poetry to a woman he does not understand. Brandt has an eager innocence in his portrayal, making his character’s perspective relatable.

The flowery rhymes and wordplay of Jones’ book and lyrics flow easily into song for the young lovers, who soar on the lyrical harmonies of Schmidt.

Capering through the gardens with a watering can, Michael Van Why’s Mr. Bellomy has a sizzling chemistry with Krista Wigle’s Mrs. Hucklebee, leading to endearing duets and cheeky Tango choreography. Transforming Matt’s father into a mother is an intriguing twist that is effective, and a clever additional layer to the story.

Still, such changes, and a sense of vintage charm, is not enough to cover over the awkward, archaic gender roles underlying the characters. It helps that this production includes welcome revisions to “It Depends on What You Pay,” replacing the original word “rape” with “abduction,” in a musical number in which the parents enlist the help of suave and manipulative El Gallo (Sergey Khalikulov). Disrespectful references to Native Americans have also been expunged, with costume designer Lisa Eldredge giving the traveling acting troupe generic Elizabethan tunics instead.

Elly Lichenstein’s direction is mildly dramatic at times, which is successful with the eccentric actors Henry (James Pelican) and Mortimer (Brandon Wilson), while feeling a bit superficial and strained at crucial family moments. Henry’s doddering attempts to recreate monologues from Shakespeare, interspersed with Mortimer’s exaggerated death scenes, are a delight.

Leading the orchestral ensemble, Mary Chun does more than just lead the band. Her presence is occasionally acknowledged by the actors. Wendy Tamis sets a picturesque, romantic tone on the harp, nimbly capering in the background. The scenic design by Ronald Krempetz, a simple wooden stage surrounded by stars, gives a sense a tall ship sailing through space.

Despite its perfumed naiveté and childlike sense of play, “The Fantasticks” has a sweet, lingering sense of melancholy that carries the scent of decay. But this production, for all its strengths and clever alterations, still calls into question whether entertaining acting and beautiful music is a worthy enough reason to justify the passing on off such flawed and outdated ideologies to the next generation. It causes this reviewer to wonder if “The Fantasticks” should perhaps be allowed to transition into a carefully pruned “concert” version in future productions.

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