In the current Raleigh Little Theatre presentation of The Fantasticks at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in downtown Raleigh, long-time RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons scores a major triumph. His uproarious rendition of this whimsical “Parable About Love” is the best looking and best sounding RLT musical in recent memory.

Snappy staging by Fitz-Simons, plus crisp choreography by Nancy Rich, and dynamic musical direction by SuAnn A. Strickland all make major contributions to the show’s success. Set designer and lighting designer Rick Young and costume designer Vicki Olson contribute a splendid set and outstanding outfits for the cast.

The show’s stellar cast, with one notable exception, really sink their teeth into their meaty roles and superbly sing the soaring songs, such as “Try to Remember” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” created by librettist/lyricist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt 43 years ago when they adapted Les Romanesques (1894) by French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) for the musical stage.

It is little wonder that The Fantasticks is the world’s longest-running musical. It opened at The Sullivan Street Playhouse Off Broadway on May 3, 1960, and closed on January 13, 2002, after 17,162 performances!

In Rostand’s hilarious burlesque of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, two teenagers fall in love — and fall victim to an ingenious scheme conceived by their fathers, who secretly want their offspring to fall in love and marry. Employing reverse psychology, they pretend to feud and forbid 19-year-old Matt (Alan Seales) and 15-year-old Luisa (Heather Powell) from seeing each other. Thus, Luisa and Matt are mere pawns in the plans of his father, Hucklebee (Timothy Cherry), and her father, Bellomy (Don R. Smith), who ultimately hire the famous bandit El Gallo (Clayton Earl Jackson) to pretend to abduct Luisa, so Matt can intervene, rescue Luisa from a fate worse than death, and become a hero.

Timothy Cherry and Don Smith are highly amusing as the fussy fathers, both devoted gardeners, who argue constantly about the proper amount of water and the exact degree of pruning necessary to make their gardens grow. Clayton Jackson is a robust El Gallo (pronounced “El Guy-o”), the mysterious bandit who doubles as the show’s Narrator, and Heather Powell is lovely to look at and lovely to listen to as Luisa.

Brent Wilson and Phil Lewis provide rib-tickling comic relief as El Gallo’s motley henchmen — an ancient ham Actor who never wants to leave the stage and Mortimer the Man Who Dies, a delightful death-scene specialist. Steve Ackerman is also good, though a bit underutilized as The Mute, who mimes his part and employs a variety of props to suggest a wall between the Hucklebee estate and the Bellomy estate, falling leaves, a silvery romantic full moon, a scorching midday sun, etc.

Only Alan Seales, who plays Matt, lacks the stage presence and the singing voice to compete with the others for the audience’s attention. He is the weakest link in an otherwise superb production of this record-setting Off-Broadway musical.

Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks is a must-see musical. Don’t miss it.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents The Fantasticks Thursday-Friday, March 20-21, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, March 22, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, March 23, at 3 p.m. in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $13-$25. (NOTE: RLT will provide audio description at 8 p.m. March 20 and sign-language interpretation at 3 p.m. March 22.) 919/821-3111. [inactive 7/1/03] or [inactive 6/04].