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THEATER REVIEW : Now in Its 3rd Decade, 'Fantasticks' Deserves Another Look : After nearly 35 years, the play, now at Occidental Theater Festival, still conveys the essence of what it means to be young and in love.

August 18, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If there's only one thing in life that remains constant, it's got to be "The Fantasticks." The fragile parable about love, now at the Occidental Theater Festival, came into the world in 1960, the same year Occidental College staged its first summer theater festival.

Both have enjoyed strapping health ever since.

As the longest-running musical comedy in American theater history (it's still playing the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, where it opened nearly 35 years ago), "The Fantasticks" is a phenomenon worth a repeated look.

The Occidental Festival production, in a kind of 35th anniversary birthday present to itself at the indoor Keck Theater's wedding cake of a venue, is a spirited revival that manages to strike the necessary tuning fork. That is, the show captures and sustains what it is like to be young again and in love.

It's always tempting to test the preciousness in the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt fable against prevailing fancies. One production in Los Angeles' inner city turned it into a rock musical. But director Alan Freeman, the artistic director of the festival's Hillside Repertory Company, remains loyal to the material's original style and the result is endearing despite a few imbalances.

The production, with its presentational style, bridges a tight-wire act between worldliness and naivete. That's the key to the show's artful simplicity--a veritable Goldilocks and her young swain surviving their romantic dreams after withering escapades with the dark and dashing bandit/balladeer El Gallo.

A Saturnalian El Gallo is crucial and Nick Paone's Mephistophelean figure is vital and seductive. As the 16-year-old heroine Luisa, Gretchen Weiss, with a voice so high that it's tremulously close to squeaking, catches just the right number of moonbeams and pearly obbligatos in her white frilly dress.

But the standout is the 19-year old Romeo to her Juliet, Fred Voss as the smitten Matt, whose performance proceeds from innocence to charm to ebullience to poignancy. He's terrific.

The mute stage manager (Ellen Gersh Lerner), onstage conductor/pianist Philip Orem and the exceptional scenic and lighting designers (L.J. Houdyshell and Trevor Norton, respectively) help instill the proper sense of timelessness.

The two points where the achievement stumbles are in the vaudevillian approaches of the lovers' two papas (Gary Davis and Skip Ludwig) and their overly broad routines as the two characters who aid El Gallo in his seduction scene.

But most of the production reaffirms the musical's delicate spell and mirrors why it has gone from a faddish cult hit to a classic.

The play is performed in repertory with "Anything Goes," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Charley's Aunt."

* "The Fantasticks," Occidental Theater Festival, Keck Theater, 1600 Campus Road, Los Angeles. Curtain time 8 p.m. on Wednesday; 2 p.m. on Sunday and Aug. 28. Festival ends Aug. 28. $9-$18. (213) 259-2922. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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