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Macabre ‘Fantasticks’ Expires, Beautiful Snobs: London Stage

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June 14 (Bloomberg) -- The musical “The Fantasticks” ran for almost 42 years Off-Broadway and, according to a program note, its original backers reaped a 19,000 percent return on their investment. If a new production in London clocks up the same statistics, I’ll eat my own head.

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s show, based on Edmond Rostand’s 1894 play “Les Romanesques,” tells the story of a neighboring girl and boy. Their fathers build a wall, hoping to encourage their offspring illicitly to fall in love. After yet more symbolic obstacles are overcome, the plan succeeds.

If the mix of tweeness, sentimentality and cutesy allegory got any more sugary, your teeth would probably fall out on the spot.

In Amon Miyamoto’s minimalist production, the play is performed on a bare stage by a troupe of perky modern commedia dell’arte players.

The company includes a narrator, who helpfully tells the audience lots of things they can’t work out for themselves: like they’re watching a play. And that they have to imagine the scenery. And more such blather.

The one hit number, “Try to Remember,” appears right at the beginning and it’s downhill from there. One ensemble includes the refrain “What at night seems oh so scenic / May be cynic by and by,” which must be one of the weakest bits of consonance ever. Can it really be that no one ever hinted to lyricist Jones that “cynic” is not an adjective?

Macabre Puppeteer

The terrific music-theater veterans Clive Rowe and David Burt (as the two fathers) do their best to inject life into the proceedings. The effect is macabre, like a talented puppeteer trying to make an elderly corpse appear alive.

Edward Petherbridge, usually a fine classical actor, does some deliberately “bad acting” as an old ham whom the narrator asks to help with the story. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the quote marks aren’t necessary.

Notwithstanding its long run in New York and productions around the world, “The Fantasticks” has never enjoyed success in London.

Whatever magic it may possess simply doesn’t translate into British English, and it doesn’t look likely to any time soon.

Rating: *.

Rattigan’s Repression

There’s British English of a different nature in a fine revival of Terence Rattigan’s rarely seen 1939 play “After the Dance” at the National Theatre. It presents a world of cut-glass vowels, upper-class insouciance and repression.

David and Joan Scott-Fowler (Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll) are thirtysomething socialites, who spend their lives drinking and glittering at parties. Their acquaintance Helen (Faye Castelow), a beautiful young prig, believes that David can do better with his life and sets in train a series of events that has both comic and tragic results.

It’s not a perfect play. Acts 1 and 3 only serve as pendants to the dramatic confrontation that occurs in Act 2. When it comes, though, that moment provides a coup de theatre which lands a spine-shivering punch. Rattigan, a master of the “well-made play,” certainly knew his business.

The cast is superb. Cumberbatch and Carroll delve deep beneath the superficiality of their characters, and produce complex portraits. Castelow invests the self-confident Helen with the necessary vulnerability to make her sympathetic.

Thea Sharrock’s production, on Hildegard Bechtler’s gorgeous 1930s apartment set, paces the emotional build beautifully. She keeps the tragicomic tone carefully balanced too.

Rating: ***.

Spitalfields Festival

When the summer solstice approaches, the U.K. heads into music-festival mode.

One great event, on the edge of the financial heartland of the City of London, is the Spitalfields Festival, which runs through June 26.

Highlights this year include several concerts by the excellent choir The Sixteen, an evening exploring the links between Monteverdi’s music and jazz (June 24), and a focus on the work of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis.

There are also lunchtime concerts, talks, walks, family events and free events.

“The Fantasticks” is at the Duchess Theatre. Information: http://www.thefantasticks.co.uk or +44-844-412-4659.

“After the Dance” is in repertory at the National Theatre. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-7452-3000.

Spitalfields Festival. Information: +44-20-7377-1362 or http://www.spitalfieldsmusic.org.uk.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer of the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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