Perry Ojeda, from left, Addi McDaniel, Nate Dendy and Anthony Carillo in… (Henry DiRocco )
The delicate theatricality of “The Fantasticks” has weathered countless editions worldwide since its off-Broadway premiere in 1960. But Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s “Les Romanesques” has perhaps never before enjoyed the elevated insight of the daring transplant irradiating South Coast Repertory.
By some contrarian alchemy, director Amanda Dehnert’s 2007 Trinity Rep-originated rethink of the world’s longest-running musical refreshes this oftentimes cloying classic’s evanescent charm. Her concept places the narrative about two naive romantics and their faux-feuding fathers in an abandoned amusement park.
Namely, Rhode Island's defunct Rocky Point attraction, actual pieces of which set designer Eugene Lee incorporates into his striking décor. As musical director Dennis Castellano and his expert colleagues -- Ellie Choate (harp) and Louis Allee (percussion) -- launch the rococo overture, our emissaries of commedia dell’arte legerdemain appear, doing applause-getting magic tricks.
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The Narrator (Perry Ojeda), alias bandit El Gallo, deftly segues into the show's indestructible signature ballad, “Try to Remember" while he and the functionary Mute (Nate Dendy) prepare the stage. Enter the starry-eyed lovers (Addi McDaniel and Anthony Carillo) and garden-happy parents (Gregory North and Scott Waara), and “The Fantasticks” begins its timeless journey from illusory moonlighted fancy to harshly sunburned reality.
Given 50-plus years of productions using only a curtain, a platform and a prop box (if that), Dehnert’s decorative take by rights should sabotage the feather-weight specifics. Yet the magical overlay generally supports the whimsical book and evergreen score and aptly brings this parable’s central tenet -- “Without a hurt/The heart is hollow” -- into shimmering bas-relief.
Credit Dehnert, Castellano, choreographer Sharon Jenkins, an ace technical effort and a dream cast. Lee’s mise-en-scène affords Jessica Ford’s festive costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s evocative lighting, Cricket S. Myers’ judicious sound and Jim Steinmeyer’s astonishing illusions optimal impact, and the endearingly unaffected players bring it home.
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Ojeda, assured in vocals and delivery, makes an ideal interlocutor, and Dendy’s agile, straight-faced mechanical is inspired. McDaniel and Carillo evince acute chemistry, lovely voices and spontaneous choices, from “Much More” and “Metaphor” onward, particularly their restive “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and Carillo’s (and Ojeda’s) cascading “I Can See It.”
North and Waara, reliable as ever, are spot-on dads, their quasi-vaudeville duets and politically corrected “It Depends on What You Pay" delightful. And SCR stalwarts Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. as, respectively, ancient ham actor Henry and hangdog death-scene specialist Mortimer, hilariously run away with the house.
Only at the climactic “Round and Round” do the sideshow furbelows seriously threaten to undercut content. Yet its effects are dazzling, and the ending is effortlessly eye-moistening. Purists may howl -- I noted scattered walkouts at intermission -- but that’s their loss, because ultimately this ingenious revival is enchanting.
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“The Fantasticks,” Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Schedule varies; see website for details. Ends June 9. $23-$75. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
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