‘The Fantasticks’ — still fantastic after all these years

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SIMPLY FANTASTIC— Conor Guzmán, Ashley Park, Regi Davis and Gedde Watanabe, from left, perform in “The Fantasticks” at The Pasadena Playhouse Photo by: Jim Cox Photography.

In 1960, “The Fantasticks” opened off-Broadway and ran for a record-breaking 42 years. I first saw the show in New York in the ‘60s. At the time the very talented Jerry Orbach (Broadway musical star and TV’s “Law and Order” cop) was the dashing bandit El Gallo. The theatre was small, intimate and the effects were simple, yet mesmerizing. The memory of that magical night will never be forgotten, even though I have seen the show three more times since then, most recently at the Pasadena Playhouse.

In 1960, “The Fantasticks” opened off-Broadway and ran for a record-breaking 42 years. I first saw the show in New York in the ‘60s. At the time the very talented Jerry Orbach (Broadway musical star and TV’s “Law and Order” cop) was the dashing bandit El Gallo. The theatre was small, intimate and the effects were simple, yet mesmerizing. The memory of that magical night will never be forgotten, even though I have seen the show three more times since then, most recently at the Pasadena Playhouse.

According to director Seema Sueko, “The Fantasticks” is still an important work of theatre because it still has the power to touch audiences with its message.

”When I read the newspapers, today feels so angry and full of hate,” she said. “ I feel we are a nation at war with itself. But “The Fantasticks” is a musical that ultimately teaches us how to love. We learn this by watching Matt and Luisa’s journey; the false happy ending love, the pulling apart and hurting each other, and finally, the return and learning how to love deeply, maturely, selflessly. It’s a lesson that is sorely needed today.”

In this newest incarnation of the show, the setting is no longer intimate and small. Instead the director has physicalized her metaphor about a nation at war with itself by resetting the play in an old abandoned, shuttered theatre. “The setting almost looks war-torn,” she notes. “Into this space our troupe of eight actors and two musicians break in, compelled to make art in this time of war.”

This concept also fits in with the Pasadena Playhouse’s own history. The theatre was closed from 1969 and wasn’t reopened until 1985, and just prior to the close the Playhouse produced “The Fantasticks” in the Patio Theatre where redwhite + bluezz restaurant now stands.,

While the current staging has been tweaked from the original, the book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt still remains haunting, funny and sweetly romantic throughout. The music is still memorable. “Try to Remember” talks about a time when “dreams were kept beside your pillow” and the song “Metaphor” declares that  “Love is better far than a metaphor could ever, ever be.”  And for humor there is the clever “Plant a Radish,” as the parents of the two young lovers talk about life, gardening and raising children who are “bewildering.”

As the story begins we meet Matt (Conor Guzman) and Luisa (Ashley Park) who are neighbors. However their two fathers have built a wall between their two houses to keep the youngsters apart because they know that if their kids knew they approve of their romance, they will cease loving one another. This bit of wisdom is detailed in the very clever duet :”Never Say No” sung by the two dads (Regi Davis and Gedde Watanabe).

To be certain that their children will marry, the two crafty fathers also hire El Gallo to stage an abduction so that Matt will have to fight for Luisa and prove his love. To aid in the abduction El Gallo enlists the services of  two actors played by Hal Lindon (TV’s “Barney Miller”) and Amir Talai.

What is so charming about ”The Fantasticks” is the magical way this tale of love and loss is told. And in the end there is a happy ending as the two sweethearts discover that “without a hurt, the heart is hollow”

“The Fantasticks,” at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena through Oct. 2. Tickets: $25-$90. For information: (626) 356-7529 or online www.pasadenaplayhouse.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.