ALAMEDA -- In the year 1960, suppose you wished to write a play about differences in the way life is viewed by older and younger generations. Would an audience find it entertaining?

Solution: Make your play funny -- but not exaggerated. Add enjoyable music. Give it a short, appealing title like "The Fantasticks."

That play would bring theatergoers in for more than 50 years.

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt wrote such a play. Their "Fantasticks" is playing now, for the second time since 1993, at Alameda's Altarena Playhouse.

The two young people in this show are actual teenagers: Luisa, danced and sung in a lovely trained voice by Katie Robbins; and Matt, strongly acted by athletic 17-year-old Nikita Burshteyn. Matt is in college studying biology "to attain ignorance." (He eventually learns wisdom, but not without pain.)

Matt writes romantic poetry, reading it aloud from a tree top. Luisa believes that she is a princess. In 1960, young people tended to be dreamers.

Luisa's and Matt's fathers, probably veterans of World War II, were far more practical. Hucklebee (Scott Alexander Ayres) and Bellomy (Christopher Ciabattoni) spend their time gardening. They sing that carrots and radishes are more predictable than children. They hope that their offspring will marry, but pretend they do not, believing that children are more likely to do the opposite of what their parents want them to do.


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Overlooking these two families is a caped man, El Gallo, played by LaMont Ridgell, who acts as observer, teacher and, occasionally, as false guide. He gently sings songs like "Try to Remember." It is difficult to know if he is a good guy or a bad buy. He moves in and out without seeming to be involved. When part of the scenery falls on another actor, almost covering him, Ridgell does not change his pace as he goes to that person, gently uncovers him, and replaces his hat.

Two other men add to the mix. Bruce Kaplan plays Mortimer, an over-the-hill actor. Charles Evans portrays his partner, Henry, wildly attired as an Indian. Henry's specialty is lengthy death scenes which he obligingly demonstrates. These two seem harmless, but once they get their hands on Matt their nasty characters break through.

There is one more person -- a quiet stage hand wearing only a black leotard. She brings in rain, snow, a cardboard moon and a fence to keep the two youngsters apart. This mute, as played by dance captain Linsay Rousseau, is far more involved than the mute is in other productions of this play. She has possibly been so directed by director Stewart Lyle to keep the show lively. She manages, without making a sound, to add much to this odd grouping.

Excellent use of the Altarena's small space is creatively made by Lyle. With the help of microphones taped to several of the men, songs and lines can be heard almost anywhere in the room.

The orchestra, led by Armando Fox, is small but certainly adequate, with the inclusion of a harp that adds to the dreamlike quality of the music. The harp is played by Helene Langamet. The only other instrument is piano, principally played by Fox with pianists Francesca Brava and Mark Dietrich adding more where needed.

Altarena's "The Fantasticks" is a delightful show, well-acted, sung and danced. Its pacing is lively and contains many surprises. It's highly recommended for all family members.

IF YOU GO
What: "The Fantasticks" by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
Where: The Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St. Alameda
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 4
Admission: $19 to $22
Reservations: 510-523-1553