Few shows have ever captured the dueling forces of innocent love and a hard-knock life as magically as The Fantasticks, the little musical that kicked box-office butt for 42 years off Broadway.
You may be able to find a slightly more professional production than the one now being mounted by the Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House. But you're unlikely to see a more charming one.
The story of the two hardheaded but wily next-door-neighbor fathers, who, knowing their children will do anything they forbid, erect a wall between their properties to make sure their kids fall in love, is an evergreen delight. And the evocative songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, such as "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain," feel as if they're part of our collective DNA by now.
The Ensemble cast is generally pleasing from top to bottom. Paul Rawlings and Emma Ruck, as The Boy and The Girl, have both the youth and the pipes to carry their roles. Even though Ruck tends to smile at odd moments, such as in the middle of the second-act argument with her love, she beautifully captures the effervescent, giddy innocence of a 16-year-old on the brink of romance. And Rawlings has an easy confidence onstage that adds to his boyish charm.
In the signature role of El Gallo, Joe Monaghan hits all the right notes, both singing and acting, but his unamplified voice is a bit soft, even for the cozy confines of this smallish arena space. This makes El Gallo less of a commanding and libidinously threatening presence.
Director Pierre-Jacques Brault wisely gives George Roth, in the luscious role of The Old Actor, plenty of elbow room, and Roth delivers a small comic gem. Dusty and wrinkled, but ever the thespian, Roth turns even the simple act of stepping off a small prop chest into a moment of sublime joy.
Brault gets so many things right — from the elegant use of The Mute (a smooth Jon Gellott) to the focus on the tender love story — one is tempted to overlook his tendency to overblock certain songs and indulge in a few too many pregnant pauses.
But for the most part, it's just fantastick.