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Romantic Workouts 

The Fantasticks is a 100 percent rags-to-riches theater legend. It opened at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a tiny off-Broadway theater, on May 3, 1960. It did not thrill the critics and almost closed immediately. But somehow, the show hung in there -- forever, almost. It finally shut down in 2002. That's 40 years running, more or less.

Whoever would have picked this odd little experiment as a Guinness Book of World Records entry? Not me, that's for sure. Now, you have a chance to cast your vote, because the show is on the boards in a tidy, authentic-feeling production at Rivertown Rep.

The Fantasticks, as the name suggests, is heavy on whimsy. I realize that sounds like an oxymoron, but it captures my problems with the script. More on that later. First, the good stuff. Gary Rucker has, over the last few years, become one of our most noteworthy and active directors. (Full disclosure: Rucker directed my last piece, Rio Seco, in 2003.) With The Fantasticks, Rucker took what might be called a classic approach to the play. The Fantasticks is a naive theatrical fable that tells of starry-eyed young love and its older, wiser, sadder incarnation. These two sides of romance thrive under the influence of different heavenly signs: the moon and the sun.

The play is sort of soft-core avant-garde, with a wistful backward glance at those fairground entertainments that were so dear to fin-de-siecle artists. There is a mime who plays a wall and who also provides the weather, by way of various colors of confetti that suggests rain, snow and, more generally, enchantment. There is also a highwayman, called El Gallo, who dresses in a black Spanish canto hondo get-up, complete with high boots and a crimson-lined cape. His main contribution to the plot is a plot. He will abduct, or, rather, rape -- as he shockingly put it -- "The Girl" in order to further her romance with "The Boy." For this is a drama of archetypes: The Girl, The Boy, The Wall and The Fathers.

Let me back up a bit. The Boy's Father and the Girl's Father have built a wall to keep their children apart. Ah, but is that really what they want? Or are they dabbling in reverse psychology? Perhaps only Edmond Rostand knows for sure -- for Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt based their 1960 mini-musical on Rostand's 1894 comedy Les Romanesques.

In any case, the happy ending that crowns the courtship is as hard to sustain as the triumphal tableau that concludes act one. Dewy-eyed, moonlit sentiment turns sour. There's hell to pay, before older, wiser children can find one another again.

All right, I admit it: This iridescent allegory brings out the curmudgeon in me. But, remember, the show ran for decades. I am definitely in the minority.

At Rivertown, an excellent cast -- Greg DiLeo, Whitney Haasé, Beau Landry, Greg Stratton, Mike Mallory, Robert Richardson, Jeff Riddick and Jesse Quigley -- brings the gossamer world to life.

The trials and tribulations of romance got a very different kind of workout recently over at the spanking new Westwego Performing Arts Theatre. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas starts with a very experienced hooker (Trina Beck) and a very inexperienced candidate-for-hookerdom (Stacy Taliancich) who arrive at the Chicken Ranch, a house of ill repute in a small town in the Lone Star State. The girls are not the central figures of the story, however -- neither are any of their adorable, scantily clad co-workers in the world's oldest profession.

The real love story here has to do with the madam of the establishment, Miss Mona Stangley (a gutsy Meredith Long) and her guy, Ed Earl Dodd (William McCrary) -- who is none other than the local sheriff. Oddly enough, their romance is touching and it ends on an understated poignant note -- oddly, that is, since this rousing, satirical country-western musical is not generally understated. And that goes double for the true-grit, tell-it-like-it-is sheriff.

What saves the musical from the abyss of cutesy whoredom is the surprising entry of a self-promoting, hypercritical televangelist named Melvin Thorpe (Alton Geno), who launches a razzle-dazzle media crusade to close the whorehouse down.

Some of the funniest numbers deal with the consequences of this crusade -- like the brilliantly evasive oratorical remarks by the governor ("Uncle" Wayne Daigrepont). There is, in fact, not a hell of a lot about the girls with garters and hearts of gold. This solid production -- by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, and which moves this weekend to the Grand Casino in Biloxi -- was directed and choreographed by Michelle Pietri. A tip of the hat to her, to the large cast of 80 or so and the 12-piece Rio Grande band.

click to enlarge Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (William McCrary) and Miss Mona Stangley (Meredith Long) discuss the high price of love in JPAS' mounting of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which moves over to the Grand Casino in Biloxi this weekend.
  • Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (William McCrary) and Miss Mona Stangley (Meredith Long) discuss the high price of love in JPAS' mounting of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which moves over to the Grand Casino in Biloxi this weekend.
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