Photo credit: Jeff Harnar
Just before the original production of The Fantasticks opened in the spring of 19something, as Rita Gardner relates in her show Much More, there was an invitation-only preview performance (“At midnight,” she wryly observed) to which Ms. Gardner invited her best friend, Charles Nelson Reilly, and her “Then husband. He was a writer.” After the preview, she raced up to her “then husband, the writer,” and asked him what he thought. “Rita… It will never run.” Reilly’s response (delivered in a wickedly funny – and apt – impersonation by Ms. Gardner) was much more on the mark: “Are you kidding! It’ll be a smash and run for years.”
Rita Gardner, of course, created the role of Luisa in that landmark off-Broadway musical, (as she also observed: “Thank you, Susan Watson, for being cast in Bye, Bye, Birdie”), and the show did indeed run for years (unlike her marriage to the writer.) And with razor sharp wit, whiplash comic timing, and a limpid voice which has lost none of its expressive warmth, Ms. Gardner honors the authors of The Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, in a show that is not just a loving tribute to their body of work, but a beautifully structured musical in its own right, musing wistfully about life, death, and everything in between.
Ms. Gardner has a buoyantly existential view about death: it’s inevitable, so we might as well live until we don’t. As directed with elegant simplicity by cabaret icon Jeff Harnar, every song is used to advance and enhance this theme. It’s a huge credit to Mr. Harnar, Ms. Gardner’s Musical Director Alex Rybeck, Artistic Consultant Pamela Sousa, the enchanting Ms. Gardner herself, and the songs they’ve chosen from the wonderful Schmidt & Jones canon that the theme is not at all off-putting, but instead becomes a sometimes raucous, sometimes bittersweet, but always joyous celebration of lives well-lived. She infuses “Simple Little Things” (110 In The Shade, 1963) with layers of exquisite longing for the small joys of sharing one’s life with another, and “The World Is Wide” and “Time Goes By,” two songs from Grover’s Corners, the musical version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (itself a paean to life and death), are delivered with a gut-wrenching honesty that perfectly captures both the song’s, and the play’s message: every moment of life should be treasured.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of true hilarity: to listen to Ms. Gardner reminisce about a party for Uta Hagan, Charle’s Nelson Reilly, and a little red dog is to experience a gifted comedian at the top of her game (again, with a wickedly apt impersonation of Mr. Reilly.) She tells this story while singing a duet with Alex Rybeck: “Throw It Away,” which was cut from I Do, I Do (1966). Both the story and the song are embarrassments of comic riches, while another duet with Mr. Rybeck, “Wonderful Way To Die” (The Bone Room, 1975) stops the show cold with its mordantly hilarious wit, and their gleefully lethal approaches to it.
If there are any regrets, it’s that at just under an hour, the evening is far too short; one leaves wanting much, much more. But that’s the point: life is fleeting, and every moment should be savored, enjoyed, and cherished. And we should all be so lucky to grow old, stay as young, and embrace our lives with the grace and charm with which Ms. Gardner has done.