Aisle View: The Fantasticks at 53

Twenty thousand hours will take you through 833 days. Twenty thousand leagues under the sea will allow you to circumnavigate the globe in Captain Nemo's submarine, with an eye-filling stopover in Atlantis. Twenty thousand jellybeans will make your dentist wealthy, albeit leaving you unhealthy and unwise. But how is one to wrap their mind around 20,000 performances of The Fantasticks?

That is the question of the day, as Harvey Schmidt & Tom Jones' "Try to Remember"musical reached the 20,000 mark at Sunday night's performance. Cynically, I would suggest that it is more likely an approximate 20,000, as producers and box office treasurers in pre-computer days have been known to misnumber nightly performance statements. But it is close enough, and I'm glad to stipulate said total.

The Fantasticks opened May 3, 1960 at the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, two blocks over from La Guardia Place. (Fiorello himself was born two doors down.) It continued to play there, through good times and bad times, good business and bad business, and the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush Administrations. The show closed on January 13, 2002, after a mere 17,162 showings.

Following a four-year respite, it reappeared on August 23, 2006 at what was then called The Snapple Theater Center, across from the Winter Garden. While this could technically be deemed a revival, it was a careful replication of the Sullivan Street production. One of the actors in the original 1960 cast, in fact, was recreating his role. Since he was playing "The Old Actor," this wasn't much of a stretch for the thesp (who was by that point 74). His performance was quite a treat, too; this was lyricist/librettist Jones himself, who in 1960 used the pseudonym Thomas Bruce. Jones also directed the new production, carefully following the original staging by Word Baker (who died in 1995). This production remains on view today at what is now called the Jerry Orbach Theater; the young Orbach, not coincidentally, created the leading role in The Fantasticks before moving on to Broadway and TV stardom.

The uptown Fantasticks changed management and went on hiatus in early 2008, but it quickly reopened and has been continuing since. So let's accept that total of 20,000 performances. As to what that means in terms of longevity, go find yourself a 52-year-old with wrinkles on forehead and lines beneath the eyes. That's how long The Fantasticks has been running.

I can count my visits to The Fantasticks on the fingers of slightly more than one hand. The show opened when I was seven, but I didn't pay a visit until 1968 when I was a teenager old enough to travel to the city by myself. The original cast members were long gone, although the Old Actor was by this point being played by a 20-something with the nontheatrical name F. Murray Abraham. I returned in 1971 with my college girlfriend, seeing as how the show was more or less on our N.Y.U. campus. I remained Fantasticks-less for the next twenty years, returning with my wife just before the real estate developers took over the Sullivan Street site. (The building and its neighbors were torn down to make way for, needless to say, a luxury condo.)

My first taste of The Fantasticks -- and mind you, by that point I knew the original cast album by heart -- was enchanting. The second not so much, perhaps because I got a weary-seeming cast. On my third and supposedly final visit, which was more or less out of obligation, I was favorably impressed: the show had an engaged set of performers and was far better than expected. What a shame, in such fine condition yet forced to close. After forty-two years.

I dutifully returned to review the 2006 production when it opened. The show was not surprisingly in impeccable shape, with a wonderful young actor named Santino Fontana sparkling in the role of The Boy. When the February 2008 closing was announced, I decided that I should take my two preteens; after all, when would they ever again have the opportunity to see a professional production of The Fantasticks? The visit was just as enchanting as my first, perhaps in part because I could watch my children -- who were already accustomed to big-money special effects -- react to plain-and-simple theatrical wizardry.

And then came my sixth visit at #20,000. Six is plenty of times to see the same show, I readily admit; but it works out to only once every 3,333 performances. That's not too many, is it?

What most impressed me this time was how fresh and alive this material is. Any show, over the years, is likely to grow faded as times change, production methods change, and tastes change. The very simplicity of The Fantasticks seems to have worked in its favor. A bare platform, a touring trunk, some benches, and a painted cardboard moon (which nowadays is a painted wooden moon), with piano and harp crammed upstage. Pure simplicity, which works out -- even in this new decade in this new century -- as pure joy.

The most notable thing about this performance, for me, was The Girl of the occasion. Ali Ewoldt is her name, whose biggest credit seems to be as Maria in a tour of the recent West Side Story revival. I haven't seen all the people who have played the show's sole female role -- only six of them, over 50 years -- but Ms. Ewoldt perfectly personified what the metaphor-happy lyricist described as sunlight, moonlight, and "the microscopic inside of a leaf." Sitting two seats away from me, by the way, was the original Girl, Rita Gardner. At the far end of my row was Tom Jones, who at eighty-five could probably still get through the show although not necessarily eight performances a week.

The most striking moment for me came late in the first act. As the big mock-abduction is about to begin, The Boy and The Girl -- sitting beneath a tree -- hear how the wind begins to whisper. "Soon It's Gonna Rain" is the song, of course, one of the two standards from the score (along with "Try to Remember"). I am a partisan of full-scale orchestras for professional musicals, but I sat there listening to the hushed silence lulled by the harp strings and thought: here is pure musical comedy magic -- you can actually smell how the velvet rain is falling, out where the fields are warm and dry -- and an emotional moment that couldn't possibly be bettered.