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Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate/The Fantasticks

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MICHAEL, MARGARET, PAT & KATE

Victory Gardens Theater

THE FANTASTICKS

Touchstone Theatre

In his "musical reminiscence" Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate, folksinger Michael Smith confesses that he never achieved the fame enjoyed by such friends and peers as Steve Goodman and John Prine. In fact, by the mid-1980s he'd given up on the music scene and was working a straight job when Steppenwolf Theatre hired him as composer and troubadour for The Grapes of Wrath. Happily, that gig launched a mid-life career in music theater; it also brought him into contact with the gifted director Peter Glazer (Pump Boys and Dinettes, Woody Guthrie's American Song).

If Smith and Glazer had hooked up earlier, the stardom Smith missed out on might have come his way. Coauthored and directed by Glazer, Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate has a vibrancy and resonance that Smith's recordings have lacked despite his fine story-telling songs. Paradoxically this lovely, touching world premiere derives considerable strength from one of Smith's limitations as a concert and recording artist: an emotional guardedness that has kept him from the achievements of a Bob Dylan or Harry Chapin.

With Glazer serving as father confessor, editor, and image shaper, that guardedness reads as subtext, transforming Smith's dryly witty anecdotes and poignant songs of innocence and experience into a meditation on one man's search for faith--a search that leads him from religion to love to music to, finally, the healing power of time and memory. Whether he's talking about the beloved younger sisters whose names complete the shows title, reflecting on the child he fathered but never knew because it was given up for adoption, or describing his alcoholic father's unexpected suicide, Smith's understated tone mitigates the stories' potential mawkishness and suggests the emotional inhibitions developed over 50-plus years of living.

With a sidelong irony that oddly recalls Roseanne Arnold and a gently husky voice tailor-made for folksy confession, Smith relates his memories of growing up Catholic in the 1940s and '50s--back when priests said Mass in Latin with their backs to you ("On the other hand, you didn't have to hug anyone"), kids said "frig" instead of "fuck," and "women who chopped up their husbands were only in the comic books." Inventively juggling different modes of story telling--traditional songs and monologues are augmented by readings from his sisters' letters, talking blues, a chanted obbligato over his backup band's rendition of "Sweet Sue"--Smith tells of beloved teachers like Sister Clarissa (who "believes in free will / The communion of saints / The forgiveness of sins / And a quiet fire drill"), boyhood heroes like Roy Rogers, and a childish infatuation with Cole Porter's seductive "Begin the Beguine": little Mike didn't know what a beguine was, but he knew it was adult and exotic. As the years pass, the stories darken; the suicide of Smith's father is foreshadowed by a troubling yet startlingly funny anecdote about Smith's mother leaving a beer can on her pillow with a note: "Sleep with this."

The second act follows Smith through adolescence and young adulthood--traveling through the snowless segregated south and forging a career in coffeehouses where audiences snapped their fingers instead of clapping (it was cooler)--before the folk scene was swallowed up by the blues bonanza of the 70s and 80s (evoked in a rollicking tribute to local legend Big Twist). In this final segment Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate loses some of its specificity, skimming over Smith's later career and his sisters' personal lives; one can only hope Smith and Glazer are holding back good stuff for a sequel.

Smith's relaxed, unpolished stage persona and his thoughtful, lyrical songs (sometimes suggesting Dan Hicks or the Beatles in their hip humor) are augmented by an onstage quartet whose members' quirky personalities highlight their musical virtuosity. Fiddler Miriam Sturm's graceful beauty and flawless intonation make her stand apart, but she's more than matched by accordionist Willy Schwarz, bassist Joel MacMillan, and guitarist Pat Fleming, whose slide and picking solos are a delight. Perfect visual and aural touches set off their splendid playing and vocalizing (ranging in style from 50s do-wop to the Sons of the Pioneers). James Dardenne's folk-club set, with colored-glass windows through which are projected Smith's family snapshots, is lovingly lit by Michael Rourke in a vein best described as marijuana mellow; Galen G. Ramsey's sound design provides atmospheric effects--the cries of seagulls, the tolling of cathedral bells, the scratches on an old record--while Gayland Spaulding's costumes give Smith and his incredible string band the slightly comic look of duded-up cowboys.

Like Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks is concerned with lost innocence; it also uses some of the same devices as Smith's show, including folk-style songs and poetic monologues that might have been intended for the coffeehouses of Smith's apprentice days. In May 1960 these elements made The Fantasticks' tried-and-true story, about a boy and a girl who find true love only after heartache and disillusion, seem fresh and touching; but like John Kennedy, elected to succeed Eisenhower that year, The Fantasticks heralded a new, youthful, unorthodox spirit.

Thirty-four years later it remains an offbeat, appealing, and (especially in an era dominated by Andrew Lloyd Webber) unusually intelligent work with its delicate melodies and playful lyrics ("Love, you are love / Better far than a metaphor can ever ever be"). And Touchstone Theatre's revival, though it fails to involve us in the characters' painful growth the way a top-notch production would, strikes many of the right notes of sweetness, humor, and wry world-weariness.

Best when it's simplest, Sarah Gabel's staging is marred by too-ornate turn-of-the-century costumes by Jane Gilbert, who seems to have been given the impression she'd been hired for a summer-stock production of Hello, Dolly! Also inappropriate are musical director William Underwood's elaborate arrangements, which sometimes obscure the lyrics and wreck the internal architecture of the nearly perfect score with arbitrary key changes and pseudoclassical vocal clutter. (The introductory "Try to Remember" is all but unrecognizable.)

In the plus column, however, are a generally solid cast and lovely scenic design by Kevin Snow, who projects pastel watercolors to suggest a pastoral universality. Standout performances come from McKinley Johnson, a fine singer who burns with hope and idealism as the lovestruck Matt; Danne Taylor and Richard Logan, providing a high quotient of slapstick as the itinerant ham actors who pretend to abduct Matt's beloved Luisa (Gaye L. Scott); and Chris Vasquez, whose burnished baritone and mercurial portrayal of El Gallo--the story's sexy, eccentric, funny, comforting, cruel bandit-narrator--energize the show.

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