Broadway Classic The Fantasticks Charms at Houston Family Arts Center

The setup:

The long-running and fabled off-Broadway hit The Fantasticks returns to Houston with its sweetness and charm intact, courtesy of Houston Family Arts Center.

The execution:

Part of the appeal of this vehicle is its deliberately low production values, as the audience is asked to use its imagination, for example, to envision a metal stepladder as a wall. (I failed this test, by the way -- it still looked like a ladder to me.) But the theatrical device of exposing illusions is handled here effectively by having a huge box onstage labeled "PROPS," from which swords and even actors can emerge, aided by a mime, Amy Barnes, who is beautiful, graceful and one of the great assets of this production.

The plot is simple, though there are some surprises on first viewing, but it's not giving too much away to say boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again. The girl, Luisa, is played by Kristen Malisewski, and she is excellent, with a strong voice that can rise to operatic levels when needed. The boy, Matt, is played by Logan Harper, complete with eyeglasses, suggesting a nerd-like persona, perhaps not the best directorial choice in characterizing the hero. And a somewhat stilted, uninflected line delivery reinforces the characterization.

The fathers of the young couple play important parts -- they are would-be puppet masters -- and they come close to stealing the show, with energy, verve and enthusiasm. Matt's father, Huckleberry, is played by Jeffrey Baldwin, and Luisa's father, Bellomy, is portrayed by Ron DonLevy, and their seasoned performances enhance the production. They are matched by two other characters: Henry, an old actor, played masterfully by John Stevens, and Mortimer the Indian, portrayed with drive, style and wonderful hair by Joshua Clark.

An important character is El Gallo, who doubles as narrator as well, and he is portrayed by Jared Barnes, who captures the story but lacks fire -- the very name calls for an exclamation point -- and his sincere portrayal is at odds with the zest required. This may well be a directorial choice, but, since he's garbed like El Zorro, one would expect a bit of charisma. He is quite good in a dueling scene with the boy, and excellent in the witty number "It Depends on What You Pay." The songs are handled well, with the haunting and most familiar "Try to Remember" opening and closing the performance. The sweet "Soon It's Gonna Rain" is delightful, aided by the mime providing the rain. Whenever she enters, the stage lights up.

The work is directed by Elaine Edstrom, and she gives this much-loved vehicle pace and comic vitality. But her staging of Matt's bitter "real-life experiences" seems unnecessarily brutal, and when he re-enters from these encounters, he seems physically damaged, with makeup that made me want to call fire rescue. Despite its fame and the strength of its musical numbers, this is a fragile play -- a fable -- and a lighter hand serves it best.

The captivating music is by Harvey Schmidt, and the amusing book and lyrics are by Tom Jones. If you haven't seen it, I can recommend this production of a milestone in the history of musical theater, here with some outstanding performances. And, if you have seen it before, return again to savor its sweetness and its creation of a world that never existed, but one that we perhaps wish did.

The verdict:

Some strong performances, enchanting music and an engaging script create an evening of pleasurable entertainment, and, yes, you will exit humming the music.

The Fantasticks continues through June 10 at the Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Rd. For information or ticketing, call 281-685-6374 or visit the company Web site.

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Jim Tommaney