City Paper is not for tourists
Simpler times, simpler musicals. The Fantasticks hails from 1960, but seeing it tricked-out in amusement-park drag left me trying to remember a time in September a little over a decade later. Pippin was previewing at the KenCen, and composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz was throwing hissy fits because he thought director Bob Fosse was tarting up his new musical with too much showbiz. “We’ve got magic to do,” sang an opening number that Fosse took literally, filling the stage with disembodied floating hands and soaring rope castles. Schwartz, who conceived Pippin in the off-B’way mold of his no-frills Godspell (which was itself conceived in the commedia dell’arte style of The Fantasticks) has since made his peace with overkill—witness Wicked—but he had a point about his simple little show getting lost amidst all the trickery: Fosse’s staging, not Schwartz’s score, is what folks chiefly remember from Pippin today. I mention all this because at the Lincoln Theatre, director Amanda Dehnert has taken a page from Fosse’s playbook in a magic-filled Fantasticks equally likely to have audiences recalling staging tricks rather than the show itself. She begins the evening with an illusionist’s act and by intermission has accomplished the not-inconsiderable feat of making the central characters disappear. That’s not to say her approach doesn’t have its merits. Harvey Schmidt’s familiar melodies and Tom Jones’ syrupy script—a gloss on a minor Rostand comedy about a boy, a girl, and the fathers who scheme to get them together by forbidding them to see each other—have always been longer on charm than on theatrical excitement. So dematerializing actors and filling the stage with paper flowers are reasonable directorial strategies, albeit ones that turn Arena’s cross-cultural but otherwise uninteresting leads (Addi McDaniel and Timothy Ware) into magician’s assistants. Eugene Lee’s dilapidated amusement-park setting has the virtue of pushing the action past the proscenium arch to make a too-cavernous auditorium feel a tad more intimate, though that advantage is almost entirely countered by metallic amplification. Laurence O’Dwyer has some amusing moments as an ancient trouper, and Nate Dendy’s mute is graceful whether in repose or fanning up snowstorms of confetti, standouts in an evening that seems designed to appeal to undemanding holiday crowds—and no doubt will.