In early 2006, a celebration was held on Broadway to mark The Phantom of Opera's milestone as the longest running production on record, having chalked up more than 18 years and 7,000 performances.
While Phantom is now nearing the 25 year mark, compare that with the 42-year run of the original Off-Broadway production of The Fantastiks. The show currently holds the record for the world's longest running musical, having opened in 1960 and starring Jerry Orbach (pre- "Law and Order" fame) as the lead character, El Gallo.
Despite its allegorical undertones and minimalist production design, the show quickly found a large following among a mainstream audience. Such has been its popularity that it has been revived countless times around the country, and is currently again up and running Off-Broadway, following the closure in 2002 of the original.
Barton Bund directs The Encore's production, which has been textually updated for a modern audience. He draws out the inherent charm in the story without overlooking its allegorical aspects. The show as a whole has something of a Brechtian flair, with an emphasis on the story rather than spectacle.
Ladders represent trees, costume racks are walls, and there is plenty of direct commentary to the audience. But ultimately it is about a boy (Ryan Dooley) and a girl (Thalia Schramm), and their journeys from love to heartbreak and reconciliation. And in between there is a delightful score, highlighted, of course, by its most beloved number, "Try to Remember" -- flawlessly delivered by the production's El Gallo (Brian Thibault).
Thibault's performance was particularly enjoyable to watch, as he exuded a mysterious charisma and was clearly enjoying his role as a God-like puppet master. He was well supported by his sidekick, the Mute (Gayle Martin), whose presence made an impact not through speech or song, but her impressive dancing ability.
Dooley and Schramm both showcased lovely voices, but their characters were at times overshadowed by the supporting cast. Tobin Hissong and Paul Hopper, as the scheming, horticulturally obsessed fathers, and Keith Kalinowski and Jamie Weeder as two aging, out of work actors, were extremely well-received by the audience. It is much to the director's and actors' credit that their performances remained authentic and did not divulge in pandering, as might be the temptation.
Ultimately, this production makes it easy to see the lingering appeal of The Fantastiks. So take this reviewer's advice...and follow.
The Fantastiks runs at the Encore Musical Theater Company now through Oct. 27. Showtimes are on Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
For more information, visit www.theencoretheatre.org, or call 734-268-6200.