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What makes a legend? .

In show business - 17,162 performances at the same theater.

"The Fantasticks," which opened May 3, 1960 at the off-Broadway Sullivan Street Playhouse and closed last Jan. 13, survived lackluster reviews, an actors’ strike, two New York City blackouts, a building collapse next door and eight U.S. presidents to become the longest running musical in the world and the longest running show in America. It’s also the show most frequently revived in regional, community and amateur theater groups.

"The Fantasticks" opened in Brooklyn Heights at the Heights Players’ theater on Oct. 4, and continues through Oct. 20.

What’s it got?

For one thing, a timeless theme.

Based loosely on Edmond Rostand’s 1894 play "Les Romanesques," "The Fantasticks" tells the age-old tale of young, innocent love, disillusionment at the hands of the cruel world and the return home - sadder, wiser and ready for a more mature, deeper love.

"The Fantasticks" also has clever lyrics and several memorable songs - most notably the haunting "Try To Remember" and a few ("Soon It’s Gonna Rain" and "I Can See it") that the very young Barbra Streisand made her own.

Although all this is reason enough for audiences to take "The Fantasticks" to heart, it doesn’t fully explain the musical’s popularity among directors. For that, one has to look at the minimal demands "The Fantasticks" places on cast and crew.

The stage is a wooden platform. The curtain is a sheet suspended from two hooks. The scenery is a cardboard moon. "The Fantasticks" does not demand powerful voices with a wide range as do Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or even shows like "Les Miserables." Nor does it call for serious acting, as in more weighty musicals like "Man of La Mancha."

True to its roots - a stage at Barnard College - this touching story of a boy, a girl, two fathers and a wall needs only a group of theater-lovers willing to give the show all their heart. This it has found in the Heights Players.

The production is directed by Steve Velardi and stars Alea Vorillas as Luisa, the Girl; Tony Montenieri as Matt, the Boy; and Jory Levine, who makes magic as El Gallo, the Narrator. Thomas N. Tyler takes the role of Bellomy, the Girl’s Father; and Helen Fein, an inspired choice on Velardi’s part, plays Hucklebee, the Boy’s Father. (We can now add cross-dressing to Fein’s other talents.)

Ed Healy as Henry, the Old Actor, and Jace Van Auken, as Mortimer, the Man Who Dies, are a team that might make vaudeville worth bringing back. Although these roles are ancillary to the main plot, their antics supply the musical with most of its humor.

Jennifer Weisenberg as the Mute (wall) manages to wordlessly hold her own.

For anyone young or unfortunate enough never to have seen the play, "The Fantasticks" is about two fathers who live next door to each other and connive to have their overly romantic children fall in love by pretending to feud so they can frown on their children’s attachment and their children can have something to rebel against.

They even hire El Gallo to stage a rape attempt, which he does with the help of Mortimer and Henry, so Matt can heroically come to Luisa’s rescue.

Alas, when the young lovers discover their fathers’ plot, their love fades and they separate - she to amorous adventures with El Gallo, he to seek fame and fortune. While their fathers complain about the perils of raising children, Matt and Luisa suffer the slings and arrows of life, and eventually return to each others’ somewhat bruised arms and broken hearts.

The original Fantasticks featured Jerry Orbach (from television’s "Law and Order") as El Gallo. Over the years, many well-known entertainers appeared in "The Fantasticks" - onstage, on TV (1964) and on film (2000) - including Elliot Gould, Liza Minnelli, Richard Chamberlain, Glenn Close, Joel Grey and Bert Lahr.

Several Brooklynites have been involved with the play, from Lore Noto, who first saw the play at Barnard and commissioned Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) to expand the one-act piece into a full-length musical, to Heights Players regulars.

The late Rick Dawn, musical director for numerous Heights Players’ productions, was "The Fantasticks" pianist for over seven years. Heights Players actor Bobby (Oliver) Rodriguez appeared as Mortimer for 10 years.

A play with such a fantastic history has both advantages and drawbacks. It might seem a theater group just can’t go wrong with it. On the other hand, any new production has a lot to live up to.

Don’t make comparisons. Don’t try to remember. Just enjoy.

Unlike the original "Fantasticks," the Heights Players’ production will only run for two more weekends. Don’t miss it.

"The Fantasticks" plays through Oct. 20, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm at The Heights Players theater (26 Willow Place at State Street) in Brooklyn Heights. Tickets are $15, $13 seniors and students. For more information, call (718) 237-2752 or visit www.heightsplayers.org on the Web.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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