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Theater Preview: ‘Fantasticks’ comes to Pasadena Playhouse

From left to right, Philip Anthony-Rodriguez, Hal Linden and Amir Talai in the Pasadena Playhouse production of “The Fantasticks.”

From left to right, Philip Anthony-Rodriguez, Hal Linden and Amir Talai in the Pasadena Playhouse production of “The Fantasticks.”

(Courtesy of Jim Cox)

Tom Jones (the writer/lyricist, not the singer) rarely involves himself with productions of “The Fantasticks,” the musical he created in 1959 with composer Harvey Schmidt. If he did, he would be doing nothing else.

The show has topped 20,000 off-Broadway performances to date, running continuously from its 1960 debut until January, 2002, then reopening in 2006. Thousands of additional productions have played throughout the U.S. and in scores of cities around the world.

But when former Pasadena Playhouse associate artistic director Seema Sueko emailed Jones with her thoughts about how she would like to mount the show, he responded by saying, “let’s talk,” and invited Sueko to meet with him at his home in Connecticut.

“I was just very interested in the ideas she had,” said Jones, while in town for the opening of the Playhouse production this past Sunday. “She wanted to approach the basic set-up in a different way, and I thought that was interesting. We had a great time, tossing back and forth ideas.”

Inspired by Edmond Rostand’s “Les Romanesques,” “The Fantasticks” was originally intended by Jones and Schmidt to be in the vein of “a Rodgers and Hammerstein” musical, Jones said.

“That didn’t work, so we decided to throw all that out and just do all the stuff we liked: presentational Commedia Dell’arte, a simple wooden platform, a cardboard moon,” he added.

Among Jones’ other influences for the show were Shakespeare’s use of thematic images and his own lifelong fascination with Joseph Campbell (“The Power of Myth”).

On the surface, “The Fantasticks” could be seen as a spoof of “Romeo and Juliet,” “with lots of light stuff and jokes,” Jones said. “I wanted to put underneath it this resonance of a very ancient theatrical idea of death and rebirth, and out of suffering, renewal.”

Sueko’s concept for “The Fantasticks” was crystallized, she said, when Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps asked her to consider this question: “Why is this musical necessary today?”

“Whenever you approach these works that are more or less iconic pieces in the American theater,” Epps observed, “you want to find an immediacy, a relevance and a resonance within the material to what’s going on in our world right now that makes it necessary to produce it again and necessary to see it again.”

Epps’ question “first made me think about this moment that we’re living in,” Sueko said. A lyric from the musical’s most familiar song, “Try to Remember” (“Without a hurt, the heart is hollow”) was particularly resonant, she said. “We, as a nation, are hurting. How do we take it upon ourselves to actively love?”

Sueko chose an unnamed war as the musical’s backdrop, visualized by set designer David F. Weiner with the look of an “old shuttered theater, abandoned since 1969,” Sueko said.

She received Jones’ permission to begin, not as is usual with the overture, but with eight actors and two musicians breaking into the derelict theater, “compelled to make art, compelled to tell this story in this time of war.”

The artists onstage include David O, the music director; harpist Liesl Erman, and the cast: Philip Anthony-Rodriguez as mysterious El Gallo, Regi Davis and Gedde Watanabe as scheming fathers, Conor Guzmán and Ashley Park as the young lovers, Alyse Rockett as Mute/Wall, Amir Talai as an itinerant troupe member —and, as the comically befuddled Old Actor, Broadway veteran Hal Linden, who at age 85 is “not slowing down at all,” Sueko said. “Working with Hal has been like a master’s class.”

In addition to rewriting “words here and there” in dialog and lyrics to accommodate Sueko’s vision, Jones saw an opportunity to fix something “that’s been a problem for nearly 60 years”: the second act “Round and Round” number that he felt “never made sense” as slapstick comedy.

Reconceived as an escalation of darker emotions, it is the turn needed, Jones said, “to get to the gravitas that follows a lot of lighthearted entertainment.

“I’ve been around [the show] so long — as a director, performer and as a writer — that I know where places turn up over and over again that are unduly difficult for actors or confusing for audiences,” Jones said. “So, my primary attraction was trying to solve this long-lingering, festering problem in act two.”

The Playhouse production, he felt, could be his chance “to see if I can solve this problem before I kick the bucket.”

“Seema and the company,” Epps said, “have really dug into the material for some deeper emotional resonance than you sometimes see in productions of ‘The Fantasticks.’ The fun and the theatricality and even the silliness of it at certain points are still there,” he said. “But I find it very, very moving.”

“The Fantasticks” is also a part of Pasadena Playhouse history. Just before the theater closed its doors in 1969, not to reopen until 1985, students of the then-resident College of Theatre Arts put on a production of the musical. Its director and cast will join the current company onstage to sing “Try to Remember” after the performance at 4 p.m. on Sept. 24.

For his part, Jones, at age 88, is busier than ever. Among his current projects: rewrites for his musical, “La Tempesta,” based on “The Tempest” and composed by Andrew Gerle (“Gloryana”) (“The best work I ever did,” Jones said. “I hope we can get a production some place”); his revision of the musical version of the cult film “Harold and Maude,” created with composer Joseph Thalken; and a new musical based on Alfred Schnitzler’s “Anatole,” with composer Nancy Ford (“I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road”) and the music of Offenbach.

And then there’s his new version of “Celebration,” a 1969 musical he wrote with Schmidt that closed after a short run on Broadway.

“The leading character bears an uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump,” Jones said. “And after 40 years of searching, I finally found an ending to it. They’re trying that out in St. Louis in October.” The production will be at the New Line Theatre.

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What: “The Fantasticks”

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: Performances: 8 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. The production ends Oct. 2

Cost: $25 to $90 (premium seating, $135)

More info: (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org


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