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"The Fantasticks" kicks off theatrical season at OST

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- "The Fantasticks" ran almost forever in New York theaters, both on and off-Broadway, from 1960 to 2002, and then, after all those years, Broadway revived it. It's never stopped playing all over the world; now it's returned to Okoboji to open the Okoboji Summer Theatre's 2010 season.

"The Fantasticks" is often spoken of as "a little musical gem." But apparently my theater companion on Tuesday's opening night didn't see it that way. When I asked, as we were driving home, what comment he would make about the current production, his reply was: "Include me out," the Sam Goldwyn saying.

I, too, felt that the show had lost a lot of its magic, which had often charmed me during the five other times I'd seen it. Several of these earlier presentations were at Okoboji Summer Theatre. The "little gem" designation may have come about because this production is always staged so simply with minimal props and scenery.

The concept is rather amusing in a whimsical way. Luisa, a 16-year-old girl, has grown up next door to Matt, now 20 years-old, and their fathers hope that the children's friendship will develop into romance.

They decide the best way to promote love is to forbid it, since children often tend to be contrary. Therefore, they build a wall between the houses and hire a bandit to abduct Luisa, which will make Matt look like a hero after he rescues her.

This reverse psychology works up to a point. The two young people develop a strong attraction by moonlight and during anxious moments of the bandit's raid. But the next morning in harsh sunlight, disillusionment sets in, showcasing their faults and differences. Luisa views the bandit as more exciting than Matt, so they part in anger. A happy ending follows, but not until the bandit has shown her his world through rose-colored glasses and Matt has traveled on his own, allowing enough time for the couple to grow in maturity.

Harvey Schmidt's music is lovely with some clever lyrics by Tom Jones. The well-known ballad "Try To Remember" always rates as a special favorite, nicely sung by John Keitel, an action figure, in the roles of narrator and bandit.

The wittiest song is a duet by fathers Kyle Groff and Dru Silva, who enjoy gardening:

"When you plant a radish, you get a radish ...

But with children until the seed is nearly grown,

You don't know what you've sown."

Melissa Boatwright fits the role of Luisa, a pretty starry-eyed ingenue with a sweet voice and pleasing manner. Charles Evans makes an agreeably boyish hero, ably executing the twists and turns of his role, which includes a duel with the bandit, using sticks instead of swords, as well as handling his numerous songs in style.

The outrageously costumed John Watkins does what he can with the part of a silly, old Shakespearean actor. Jamie Keith assists gracefully, entirely in pantomime, as she hands out props and assumes the role of "the wall" that separates the two families.

Harp and piano provide the appropriate musical accompaniment; Beth Leonard directs. A highlight is the effective use of dramatic tableaux.

At the play's end, the audience burst into cheers and applause with the usual standing ovation. "The Fantasticks" continues through Sunday to be followed by an interesting variety of comedy, drama and two more musicals during the next eight weeks of summer.