PROVIDENCE -- It might seem crazy to stage "The Fantasticks," a show that people could have seen in any of its record-setting 17,162 Off-Broadway performances, in its current Broadway revival, in an ill-starred 1995 film, or in just about every high school and community theater in America. It might even be crazy, if Trinity Repertory Company didn't have Amanda Dehnert directing and Eugene Lee designing the set.
With them on board, though, Trinity has produced a winner. Savvy but sincere, inventive but faithful, this "Fantasticks" preserves the silly-sweet charm of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's deceptively simple confection, while adding a few pleasingly sharp flavors of its own.
The story is about as basic as it gets. A boy and a girl dream of love, find it, fall out of it, and find it again. Around the young lovers, three other pairs inspire, obstruct, and abet their romance: the two fathers, who pretend to oppose the match in order to make their kids want it; two itinerant actors, hired to enact the girl's abduction so the boy can save her; and the mysterious El Gallo and his silent sidekick, who keep everything humming along.
Humming along, by the way, is just about impossible not to do with the show's signature song, "Try to Remember." But what makes this production more interesting than you might expect is that Dehnert doesn't let even that classic ode to bygone joys drown in pure nostalgia. Maybe, she shows us, there was "a kind of September when life was slow and oh, so mellow," but maybe it was always a bit of a con, a painted backdrop instead of a real blue sky. And aren't we happier now, when we know that it's fake and love the beautiful shade of blue anyway?
Jones's lyrics and Schmidt's music always contained the seeds of this idea, but too often they threaten to disappear behind too-cute rhymes and too-neat melodies. Dehnert never lets that happen because she cuts even the schmaltziest moments with a dash of vinegar.
In this she is greatly aided by the magnificent Joe Wilson Jr., who gives El Gallo a slinky, slightly menacing grace and a weary but affectionate air. When he sings "Try to Remember," it's every bit as lovely as it needs to be, but it's also rich with the kind of wisdom that comes only from having been knocked around a little. Or, as Schmidt's final verse puts it, "Without a hurt the heart is hollow."
It's Lee, though, who's the true star here. Instead of the prescribed bare stage, he provides a rusty carnival backdrop, cobbled together from bits of an old amusement park, that echoes and deepens Dehnert's battered-snazzy gloss on the show. When El Gallo hangs a cardboard moon for the pretended abduction, Lee and lighting designer John Ambrosone reinterpret it with quiet brilliance: The "Rocky Point" sign that hangs above the stage, all twinkly lights in old metal, goes dark except for one shining O.
That's a moment of magic in a production that's full of them -- and fittingly so, since "The Fantasticks" is as much about the enchantments of theater as it is about enchanted and disenchanted love. Wilson and his sidekick (first-year Brown/ Trinity Rep Consortium student Nate Dendy, in a stylish turn that evokes the silent half of Penn and Teller) set the tone from the start, with a few small, dazzling feats of actual vaudeville magic, with disappearing trinkets and blooming paper bouquets.
The vaudeville spirit infects the scheming dads, too, with Fred Sullivan Jr. and Stephen Berenson finding every possible gag in their gently jokey songs and sweetly hokey dances. Brian McEleney and Mauro Hantman similarly freshen some rather ancient humor with their over-the-top histrionics as the hired hams.
As for the young lovers, Stephen Thorne and Rachael Warren are perhaps not quite so young as they might be. For those of us who can remember more than a few Septembers, though, their clearly adult faces lend a poignant touch to their childish courtship -- and a genuinely moving depth at the end, when the long-separated lovers at last reunite in their own chastened, grateful reimagining of what happily-ever-after might mean.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.