‘The Fantasticks’ (Bedlam: 9 – 12 Oct ’13)

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Image by Louise Spence

“Performed in New York almost continuously since 1960, The Fantasticks is a curiously-constructed musical.  The first act is cutesy – sometimes to a fault – telling the knowingly-ridiculous tale of a forbidden teenage romance, and of two fathers’ efforts to control their love-struck offspring.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

“Try to remember the kind of September / When life was slow, and oh, so mellow,” exhorts The Fantasticks’ famed opening song. Well, they’ve missed September by a week or two, but in every other respect Edinburgh University Theatre Company have fulfilled that brief: this is a warm-hearted, uncomplicated production, which gently lulls you backwards into an agreeably nostalgic haze.  Sadly, however, the lyric also foretells this production’s main weakness.  It’s all just a little bit slow.

Performed in New York almost continuously since 1960, The Fantasticks is a curiously-constructed musical.  The first act is cutesy – sometimes to a fault – telling the knowingly-ridiculous tale of a forbidden teenage romance, and of two fathers’ efforts to control their love-struck offspring.  But after the interval, the scenes grow dream-like and altogether darker, in a dislocating transition which this particular production never quite pulled off.  It doesn’t help that the original boy-meets-girl plot is wrapped up by the end of Act One, leaving the second half to lumber away from an awkward standing start.

But we can’t blame EUTC for the plot’s idiosyncrasies, and they’ve certainly had fun responding to its old-style American charm. Jordan Robert-Laverty neatly captures the clean-cut naivety of a 1950’s college boy, while Claire Saunders excels as his swooning 16-year-old paramour, milking the comedy of her role without ever quite crossing the line into over-acting.  Saunders’ voice lends her songs an almost operatic tone, and contrasts nicely with the more natural style of Alexandre Poole – who brings an understated authority to his multi-faceted role as both villain and narrator.

Muscially, however, the performance suffered from frustrating inconsistency, with almost all the actors delivering showstopping performances for some songs while clearly struggling with others.  The surprising exceptions were Daniel Harris and Thomas Ware, playing the two teenagers’ warring fathers; their characters seem at first to be formulaic comedy chumps, but soon prove to be far more.  Harris and Ware both have fine, comforting voices, and their harmonising duets proved a thoroughly unexpected highlight – enhanced by some genuinely witty, if slightly methodical, dance.

Indeed, the whole production demonstrates a playful sense of physicality, with an impressive swordfight (and gloriously extended death scene) raising the stakes just before the interval.  But whenever the pace wasn’t being dictated by the music, the energy ebbed away.

So EUTC’s production isn’t quite fantastic – but it’s an enjoyable, stylish, and life-affirming version of a cosily charming musical. Credit must also go to pianist Dan Glover and harpist (yes, harpist) Sam MacAdam, whose position at the side of the stage brings them very much into the heart of the performance.  It’s a show I’ll be sure to remember.