Consistently reviving a "crowd pleaser" is an easy trap for theaters to fall into. What's rare is for that theater to push itself and present a reimagined production that makes an old warhorse feel new again.
Theatre Three has produced Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks eight times before, but it's been 20 years since Dallas audiences have seen the popular musical on this stage. But it's not like there's been a dearth of opportunities to see the show since — its small cast and spare staging have made it a favorite with high schools, colleges, and community theaters. Not to mention it's also been running Off-Broadway almost continuously since 1960.
But director Bruce Richard Coleman isn't interested in throwing up a simple reiteration of this tale of young love and all its misconceptions. He's gone full-out at Theatre Three, with an elaborate, multilevel set by Scott Osborn and dreamy lighting by Lisa Miller, and a cast that seizes these familiar roles with a fresh sense of wonder. It doesn't hurt that elevating the actors with Osborn's set produces some of the best sound quality ever experienced at Theatre Three.
Part of the appeal of The Fantasticks is its seemingly straightforward plot that veers into strange and yet still oddly relatable adventures. Concocting the best way to get their children to fall in love, two mischievous fathers (Jackie L. Kemp and Bradley Campbell) build a wall between their neighboring properties and invent a feud between the families. That, of course, spurs young Luisa (a silver-voiced Natalie Coca) and Matt (Dennis Wees) to convince themselves they are madly in love with each other.
When faced with how to resolve the imaginary feud, the fathers hire the traveler El Gallo (David Lugo) to orchestrate a fake abduction of Luisa so Matt can gallantly rescue her. Jill Lightfoot scampers throughout assisting as The Mute, a versatile player who emerges to play anything or anyone when needed. When the kids discover it was all a ruse, they question their feelings and part, determined to explore the world without each other.
That's when things get weird. The world, to put it lightly, chews them up and spits them out, showing the young lovers how unpredictable life can be and how genuine feelings can't be manufactured. There's a thread of surreal that runs throughout the musical, and Coleman has his cast play up the odd moments to great success.
Coca especially imbues the self-centered Luisa with wackiness, and it makes the teenager endearing rather than tiresome. But it's the utter fearlessness of Terry Vandivort as the Old Actor, whom El Gallo calls into action for the abduction, that steals the show.
From the second he emerges, trembling, from a steamer trunk and doggedly recites classic monologues to prove his theatrical prowess to El Gallo, Vandivort becomes a force that is impossible to ignore. Accompanied by Darren McElroy as his sidekick Mortimer, Vandivort makes even the slightest movement a showstopping moment. It's a reminder that there's always a new way to reinvent a classic.
The Fantasticks runs at Theatre Three through December 27.