TT: The perfect musical

For those of you who read my recent posting about going to see The Fantasticks, my Wall Street Journal review of the revival I saw is in this morning’s paper, coupled with a review of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Mr. Dooley’s America:

The Snapple Theater Center, a new two-auditorium complex a few steps away from Broadway, has revived “The Fantasticks” in a small-scale production similar to the one that ran from 1960 to 2002 at Greenwich Village’s Sullivan Street Playhouse. I never saw it there–I must be the only middle-aged playgoer in Manhattan who didn’t–but I can’t imagine that it was any better than this lovely revival of a show that has lost none of its guileless freshness after half a century of hard use.

In calling “The Fantasticks” guileless, I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything other than impeccably crafty. Part of what makes it so effective, in fact, is that Tom Jones’ book takes all the stock devices of the Broadway musical, strips away their superfluities, and transforms them into timeless archetypes: two young lovers, two quarreling parents, two blundering stooges and a tall, dark stranger who appears from out of nowhere to set the simple plot in motion. Back in 1960 such extreme economy of means was rarely to be found in American musical comedy, which is part of what made “The Fantasticks” seem so fresh. Nowadays the miniature musical is an Off Broadway staple, but Mr. Jones’ concise book remains exemplary–and unlike the increasingly tuneless shows of today, “The Fantasticks” is blessed with an equally excellent score….

Finley Peter Dunne, who died in 1936, is one of those writers whom everybody quotes but nobody knows. He created Mr. Dooley, the Chicago bartender whose sly observations about politics and its practitioners (“The Supreme Court follows the election returns”) are forever being recycled, usually without credit, by op-ed columnists in search of a pithy way to restate the obvious.

Dunne’s own columns are forgotten, not because they’ve lost their point but because they were written in a porridge-thick stage-Irish dialect (“Thrust ivrybody, but cut th’ ca-ards”) that is impenetrable to the contemporary eye. To make sense of his witticisms, you have to read them out loud–or hear them read. Enter Philip Dunne, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter and the son of Mr. Dooley’s creator. Working in tandem with Martin Blaine, Dunne the younger quarried a two-man play out of his father’s best columns. First performed in 1976, “Mr. Dooley’s America,” was an eminently logical candidate for revival by the Irish Repertory Theatre, the best of all possible Off Broadway companies, and Charlotte Moore, the Irish Rep’s artistic director, has revived it with skill and sympathy….

(I should add, by the way, that The Fantasticks is the most child-friendly show currently playing in the New York theater district. It’s lively, squeaky-clean, and not too long, and anyone old enough to watch a love story without squirming in his seat or going Eeuuww! is old enough to enjoy it.)

No free link. Buy the damn paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, the review is here.)

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