ST. PETERSBURG — The longest-running musical ever, The Fantasticks, weaves fairy tale and disillusionment, theater and its deconstruction together in charmingly simple ways. Freefall Theatre take it a few steps further, with two actors also playing piano and a harpist (Meredith Coffman) who in retrospect seems indispensable. This is an honest and focused work orchestrated by artistic director Eric Davis, carried off by talented cast.
The story, modeled by Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt after a late-19th-century French play (Les Romanesques), follows the neighboring fathers who scheme to have their teenage son and daughter fall in love. The constructions they build evolve into a discussion of theater, our simultaneous demands for truth and also pleasant illusion, and the meaning of love.
It would be hard to imagine a more diligent production of The Fantasticks than this one. Patrick Ryan Sullivan supplies occasional narration and plays El Gallo, a swashbuckling bandit who factors into the dads' plot. Sullivan plays the role with a sure hand, establishing a bittersweet tone in Try to Remember albeit with a voice that is past its peak years. Nonetheless, the music resounds as the strongest aspect of the show. Grace Choi performs admirably as Luisa, with the kind of power that makes her innocent fantasizing in Much More stand out, an early promise. Her subsequent duet with neighbor Matt (Cameron Kubly), Metaphor, rings with triumph. The other singers are not in her class — and one might wish for at least one more singer that is — but they pull their weight.
The theater gets maximum use out of a simple set, a stepladder for a wall and blankets symbolizing babies that unfurl and fly away. Remarkably, this production also incorporates puppets, picking up on the theme of aggrieved teens who feel frustrated by their parents. Luisa and Matt talk to each other through the puppets they hold, physically holding onto what they are willing to reveal. Other characters do the same in one way or another. A workable chemistry develops between a blossoming Luisa and a shy but ardent Matt, neither of whom realize that their entire forbidden romance is a set-up by their conspiring fathers.
In Never Say No, Hucklebee and Bellomy, dads to Matt and Luisa, celebrate their deception. The wall, as well as the "feud" the concocted between them, was just a ruse to trick rebellious teenagers into seeking each other out. The show benefits greatly by the fact that Michael Ursua as Hucklebee and Paul Helm as Bellomy are also first-rate pianists who can act and sing. They play the bright overture on opposite sides of a hexagonal stage, leap onto it to play their roles or play together on a third piano. With that much talent afoot, it's hard to go wrong.
For all its whimsical overtones, The Fantasticks didn't get its staying power with a dashed off plot. The otherwise little known Jones created a book that simultaneously frames a show within a show, within a sometimes didactic or even tiresome discussion of theater itself. Thus El Gallo hires himself out to the fathers to stage an "abduction" (softened by Jones and Schmidt from "rape" in early productions) so that Matt can defeat him in a duel, rescue Luisa and cement the romance as a hero. He hires actors Henry (Roxanne Fay) and Mortimer (Daniel Schwab), a broken down Shakespearian who forgets lines and an actor who only does death scenes. The Mute (Nick Hoop) fades in and out of the background, silently supplying props and looking generally forlorn. They do well, but the pace of a lengthy audition scene in the first act slows the pace to a crawl.
That picks up by the second act, and both supporting characters supply a needed comic relief. The purest purposes fulfill themselves, though not in the ways the schemers had planned. The lecture-like digressions in The Fantasticks about theater, like the vegetable gardens the fathers cultivate, are not always fascinating. But they make up part of a first-rate production that deserves to be seen.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.