‘The Fantasticks’ has fine performances, brave actor on crutches

Sometimes a show is more than a show. Sometimes, because of unique circumstances, it becomes an event.

And so it is with Spinning Tree Theatre’s singular production of “The Fantasticks,” the legendary musical fable that we all think we know.

Last week the opening-night performance was canceled at intermission after actor Vigthor Zophoniasson tore an Achilles tendon. The show took a few days off, co-directors Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman re-blocked a substantial part of it, and fight choreographer Martin English helped restage the comic sword fight in Act 1.

On Thursday the production came roaring back with a sense of bravado that I’ve rarely seen. The actors were energized, the audience was exceptionally receptive and Zophoniasson, performing on crutches and in a wheelchair, breezed through the show like there was nothing to it.

Co-director Grayman became a character onstage, handling some of the physical duties originally assigned to Zophoniasson, and his self-effacing presence added to the production’s sense of humor. A few lines not found in the script but acknowledging the obvious — that the lead actor was in a wheelchair — were hilarious.

It was, in short, an unforgettable night of theater.

“The Fantasticks,” by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, long ago entered the history books for its decades-long run in New York, and most of us have seen it done somewhere. But this production makes us look at the material with fresh eyes. Jones’ book and lyrics seem simple and easily digestible, but as the show progresses the story acquires a philosophical weight that forces us to contemplate, well, the meaning of life.

Our narrator is the dashing El Gallo (Zophoniasson), who introduces us to the principal characters and the plot. A Girl (Sarah Goeke) and a Boy (Seth Jones) live next door to each other but are separated by a wall put there by their parents.

The Boy’s Mother (Julie Shaw) and the Girl’s Father (Tom Lancaster) pretend to be feuding, but it’s all an elaborate scheme to get the Boy and Girl to fall in love. That they do, and the deal is sealed after the parents hire El Gallo to stage a mock abduction so that the Girl may be “rescued” by the Boy.

In Act 2, they discover that love and life are complicated. The Girl becomes infatuated with El Gallo, who shows her the world through a mask that magically transforms horror into amusement. The Boy strikes out on his own, only to return late in the show battered, bruised and wise to the harshness of life. His experience underscores one of the show’s most evocative lyrics: “Without a hurt the heart is hollow.”

This production is remarkable for the number of fine comic performances inhabiting the same stage. Lancaster and Shaw (she, by the way, is playing a role that was written as a male character) are in sync all night and are a delight to watch as they show us what comic timing really is.

Kip Niven is in rare form as Henry, the Old Actor. He and his partner Mortimer (Martin Buchanan) sign on as two of the villains in the fake abduction, but Henry is as heartbreaking as he is absurd. The Old Actor — always offering to show his clippings, unable to remember lines from his most famous roles, and delusional and vain as ever — is one of the most vivid characters in American theater. Niven is magnificent.

Buchanan as the perpetual second-banana whose specialty is dying gives us an over-the-top performance that never seems out of balance with the rest of the show. He and Niven work together with the familiarity of a couple of old vaudevillians.

Goeke is also very funny in a different way. Her personification of the adolescent fantasies of a teenage girl who has just figured out that she’s pretty is nuanced and precise and rooted in reality. She and Jones are an appealing team.

Zophoniasson, a native of Iceland, performs with bravura and unshakable confidence as he wheels about the stage or hobbles on his crutches. He’s charismatic and charming and after awhile viewers will gladly overlook what to American ears sounds like a Scandinavian accent.

Musically, the show is largely successful. The score is performed by pianist Jakob Wozniak, whose playing was sometimes imprecise in the early going Thursday, and harpist Peggy Friesen, whose musicianship, as usual, was impeccable.

Goeke is a stunning soprano, and Jones’ strong baritone seems inordinately powerful in such a young actor. The score at times sounds as if it’s pitched almost too low for Zophoniasson, who has to dig deep for the low notes. His upper register is flawless.

The production values are rather modest but serve the material. Ultimately this production is about the actors, the story and the music — and one guy who lights up the stage with a leg in a cast.