Anyone who wants to understand what theatrical magic can be need only venture down to the Sullivan Street Playhouse and witness a performance of The Fantasticks. There are no explosive effects here, just eight actors, a piano and a harp, some simple props and costumes, and a roomful of imagination. The result is unfailingly joyous, special, heart-warming, and memorable.

The story is simple: a boy and a girl are in love; they think their fathers are against the romance, but it turns out that these wily gentlemen have set out to engineer the whole affair. They hire a roving bandit called El Gallo to abduct the girl and be defeated by the boy, thus securing the union. But all come to learn that a life built upon illusion and theatrics is incomplete.

Incomplete but necessary: The Fantasticks is also a celebration of all things theatrical, whether on stage at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, or in our own fevered imaginations. El Gallo hires an old actor to assist him in the abduction, and he turns out to be an invaluable character indeed. Down but not out, buried under layers of dust and makeup, the actor Henry Albertson reminds us of the value of make-believe in a hard, cold world.

The same can be said of The Fantasticks itself, a vestige of a theatrical time and place that seems long ago and unrecoverable--except that it persists, intact, after nearly forty years. Remarkably, it feels as fresh as ever: I've seen The Fantasticks four times over the last six years and each time the show is lively and sparkling: The Fantasticks is apparently, ageless.

Credit the lovely, underappreciated score ("Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You"), Word Baker's efferevescent and simple direction, and the expert ensemble work of a company of veterans and newcomers who clearly respect and enjoy this work. David Edwards has just joined the cast as El Gallo, and Tom Stuart, who played the Boy the last time I saw The Fantasticks, has just come in as the Mute; both are splendid. William Tost, on the other hand, was in the original production of The Fantasticks at Barnard College in 1959; he plays the Girl's Father (as he has for years) with vigor and panache. And Bryan Hull, New York's longest-running actor (19 years in this production as the Old Actor), is if anything better than ever. I'll not soon forget his Act One exit line: "There's usually an audience--somewhere."

Kudos, too, to Hank Whitmire, who has been accompanying the cast on the harp--beautifully--for years now; and to Jeremie Michael, making equally lovely music at the piano.