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`THE FANTASTICKS’ STILL A NIFTY MUSICAL DESPITE ALTERATIONS

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Any play that's been running nonstop for 30 years obviously has something going for it. Memorable music, a light, romantic storyline, interesting characters.

These are the main ingredients in "The Fantasticks," being revived by the Broadway Stage in honor of the show's off-Broadway 30th anniversary.For the most part, director Rafael Colon Castanera has given this latest version some interesting touches, especially in the set, costumes and lighting, coupled with a cast of talented performers.

Standouts are Gene Pack and Dan Larrinaga as Henry, the doty Shakespearean actor who can't quote a single line without fracturing it, and Mortimer, his hapless associate, who specializes in the dying art of. . .dying.

Also, Lyn Noe, as Hucklebee, Matt's frustrated father, and Robert Wood as Amos Babcock Bellomy, Luisa's equally frustrated dad. ("With progeny. . .it's hodgepodgeny. . ." they sing in their humorous duet.) Together, Noe and Wood inject energy and humor into the show.

Laura Clayton and Davison Cheney have the proper fresh-scrubbed look of innocence about them, as Luisa and Matt, the young next-door neighbors who are madly in love - against their fathers' wills.

Curtis Alan Graf is a handsome and dashing Narrator/El Gallo, although - on opening night at least - he appeared somewhat distant and wooden early in the performance, then loosened up and became more forceful.

But while many people fondly remember this show for its sweet romance and its classic score, Castanera's production has some dark edges to it - and we're not just talking about the stage lighting or the deliberate sarcasm of the second act.

A major part of the plot development in "The Fantasticks" revolves around the fathers' plan to have bandit-for-hire El Gallo stage a fake abduction, just so Matt can fend off the foes and appear to be a hero.

Although it's referred to, both in song and dialogue, as a "rape," technically it is not - and this aspect is even brought out in the play itself, when Luisa's father shudders at the word and El Gallo explains that he uses "rape" because its more concise and businesslike.

Leading up to this sequence, El Gallo, Bellomy and Hucklebee sing "It Depends on What You Pay" - a sort of musical shopping list about the various abductions available.

Done right, it is more satirical than offensive.

Ironically, before "The Fantasticks" opened, director Castanera said he was uncomfortable with this one portion of the show and was going to soften it as much as possible.

I say ironically, because what he ended up with produces just the opposite reaction.

Two characters in the show are The Mutes (Nancy Jenkins and Michael Ensign). They perform a variety of tasks, moving some set pieces on and off and rebuilding the wall between the two families' homes during the second act.

A good deal of the time, they sit quietly on either side of the stage, awaiting their next part in the play.

But Castanera has involved them in "It Depends on What You Pay" by choreographing what amount to disburbingly sensual, provocative and even sinister movements.

Here's El Gallo singing about the joys of "a pretty rape" (and we're supposed to understand that he's NOT referring to the sexual act), but meanwhile the Mutes are bumping and grinding their hips, or, even worse, moving in such a way that, given the context of the song, the first thing that crosses your mind is how dangerously close this comes to being carnal instead of comedic.

In contrast, the "Rape Ballet," in which El Gallo's inept band of abductors actually carry out their project, is done with hilarious melodramatic style.

Aside from this, however, "The Fantasticks" remains pretty much what it always has been - a nifty little musical.

The performers playing the central characters - the young lovers and their fathers - are properly happy-go-lucky in the first act and slightly off key in the second act, when they discover that what is "scenic" in the soft glow of moonlight, suddenly becomes "cynic" in the harsh heat of broad daylight.