Part comedy, part tragedy, it’s curiously difficult to pin down The Fantasticks’ tone. Under Saundra McClain’s direction, Ensemble Theatre takes what might have been a forgettable sentimental romance and makes it something deeper and darker. As El Gallo—the black-clad, bejeweled narrator—Jeff Griggs brings emotional gravitas. His solemnity is offset by the antics of the fathers (Skip Harris and Matt Shea), who alternate between fighting bitterly and dancing arm-in-arm. Thanks to choreographer Byron Easley, these two stooges have a number of laugh-out-loud duets. Easley also plays Mortimer, sidekick to the actor Henry (Leland Crooke). The two emerge out of an old trunk, engage in some deliciously bad pantomime and, after a time, crawl back where they came from.
It’s in Act II that things really get interesting. Matt (Matt Wolpe) wanders off into the real world where disappointment and brutality await, and in “Round and Round,” Luisa (Carly Bracco) lets El Gallo lead her on a dizzying international tour, holding a carnival mask to her face when things get too ugly or painful. Elements of shadow play make this portion of the play truly spooky.
In the intimacy of the Alhecama Theatre the live onstage accompaniment (David Potter on piano, Laurie Rasmussen on harp) and the performers’ voices reverberate beautifully. They’re all superb singers, except of course for The Mute (Heather Ostberg), who hovers at the edge of scenes, occasionally holding up a branch or releasing a handful of snow on the lovers’ heads. She speaks the truth without saying a word.