During my days in the industry, I undertook a marketing training where I learnt what "top-of-the-mind" awareness was. The usefulness of the concept was demonstrated beautifully by a small lady in a parka last evening.
We were standing in queue for Broadway Musical tickets at the "tkts" counter at Times Square. There was a strangely dressed man giving out pamphlets for "Chicago". There were glowing billboards and animated displays advertising "Lion King", "Shrek - the Musical", "Mama Mia", "Little Mermaid", "Mary Poppins" and "Phantom of the Opera". And there was this beaming friendly lady, standing beside the queue and offering help in a totally homely manner. With the manner of an over-enthusiastic helpful tourist, she told us about "The Fantasticks", the longest running musical in history. She told us that the story was kind of "Romeo and Juliet" but without anybody dying in the end, and she sang a song to tell us the tune, and said that there were only a few seats in the theatre with everybody getting equal view. As a result, when we found out that the usual favourites were either full or out of reach, we named the one that was at the top of our minds, thanks to the clever "homely" marketing.
And a homely affair it was. At first sight the Jerry Orbach theatre doesn't look much bigger than a large drawing room (although it is). The seats end right where the stage begins... it is not even a raised stage. It is as if a small area has been cleared at the centre of a large room for some performance. The ceiling was hardly nine feet high and full of visible spotlights and other equipment. To speak frankly, I was a little disappointed - especially since I had seen The Lion King before this.
But once the musical started, nothing else mattered. Each one of the eight actors was wonderful and so were the two musicians. The story is pretty simple: two neighbouring gentlemen trick their children to fall in love with each other by creating an imaginary feud and building a wall between their houses. Their idea was, since the children always disobey their parents, they would surely fall in love if they were forbidden to do so. The story goes on smoothly, with very few twists. There are minor obstacles in the way of a happy ending, of course, but they are cleared up very predictably. But the strength of this musical lies in its simplicity. If The Lion King is an example of how anything can be shown on stage with technology, The Fantasticks is the diametrically opposite example of how everything can be created in the viewers' minds without even a proper stage.
All of the actors were very powerful in their own way. However, Betsy Morgan as Louisa gave the most memorable performance. Her facial expressions matched every line of dialogue she spoke and her singing was flawless. Michael Nostrand as Mortimer was also amazing. Everyone worked in perfect synchronization, and occasionally even interacted with the first row of the audience. Sometimes the actors themselves also came out of the stage into the audience area.
The songs were good, especially "Try to remember" which has the kind of tune that keeps going round and round in your head. The narrator and the "mute" also gave very powerful performances to take the story forward.
The minuses: the story drags a bit towards the end of the play. I felt it does not have enough material for a two hour long performance. However, if it has run for 46 years then people must have been liking it. Also, the air conditioner in the theatre makes a lot of noise. This is a distraction which mars the viewing pleasure.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable musical - two hours well spent. And the best part is I came to know about this simple yet lovely play which can be enacted at a small school function or even by a family group. The only thing needed is acting talent.