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The Fantasticks

Starring Joel Grey, Jean Louisa Kelly, Joe McIntyre, Jonathan Morris, Barnard Hughes and Teller
Screenplay by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones
Based on their play
Directed by Michael Ritchie

IN SHORT: My mom is gonna love this... [Rated PG for some bawdy carnival humor. 86 minutes]

Above all else, and before I write another word, director Michael Ritchie's re-imagining of The Fantasticks is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, made even more so by breathtaking cinematography by DP Fred Murphy and design by Douglas Schmidt. For those who haven't stumbled across the listing in a tourist guide to New York and bought tickets thinking "40 years running Off Broadway? It must be good!" (Actually, the producers have got an iron clad contract for dirt cheap rent. Now you have that bit of trivia under your belt if you ever make it to the hot seat of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire) the original production kicked two songs into pop songbooks back in the days when Elvis was incarcerated in Germany, "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "Try To Remember"

Truthfully, this type of musical ain't my particular cup of tea. I'm not a fan of "traditional" musicals. I don't particularly find fantasy dance sequences that (seem to) close off the second act of all of 'em interesting and I sure don't like the whitebread music. Still, Cranky's mom used to sing "Try To Remember" to him back around age 4, so forgive me if I get a wee misty.

We've also seen a lot of email inquiries about The Fantasticks, since it languished on a shelf for the five years since principal shooting was finished. The reasons were simple. Michael Ritchie's cut didn't work well enough for the suits at United Artists. Before he could get it to their liking the budget money ran out and the executive that had been shepherding the project ankled the company. For this release thank Francis Ford Coppola, a UA board member, who pulled the reels off the shelf and finished the job. The Fantasticks is fifteen minutes shorter than it was five years back, which means nothing to us since we don't compare to the original material (which is still running downtown from us in New York City). And, since we also get a lot of email from folk decrying the lack of films with "family values" here's one for you. And it's gorgeous, to boot. (And yes, I'll repeat myself again on this point. This really is a beautiful film to watch...)

Even if you didn't know it's origins, any well rounded person could sense where the three acts of the original play begin and end. Act I is straight out of Romeo and Juliet. Two young "lovers" -- The Fantasticks is set somewhere in the American Heartland in the 1920s, when teenlets didn't even kiss until a spitting distance from engagement -- who find each other despite their fathers whose feud has led to a huge patchwork fence being built between their properties. When a travelling carnival comes to town Luisa (Jean Louisa Kelly) and Matt (Joe McIntyre) are both forbidden to attend by their dads Bellomy (Joel Grey) and Hucklebee (Brad Sullivan). They, of course, sneak off. Their dads, in a nimble twist of plot, clink glasses and toast their cleverness in getting their kids together. Yes, the feud was a fraud, and now the paters must find a way to end the feud and bring the pairing to a proper, marital conclusion.

To do that, they enlist the carnival and its magnetic leader El Gallo (Jonathon Morris). Spending every last dollar they have to concoct a situation in which Matt can "save" Luisa and thus become a hero to all the fatherly pair fail to anticipate the allure of the greasepaint. Act II, or "the grass is greener..." sees Luisa swept away by the glamour of the carnival, as Matt looks increasingly like the country bumpkin that he is and El Gallo weaves a spell over the innocent lass. In Act III, reality rears its ugly head.

Within the confines of the Carnival, staffed by small people and fake freaks are two actors who keep the spark fanned in this production after the music (I told you I didn't like it) makes it sputter. Barnard Hughes and a Penn-less Teller deliver terrifically funny performances as an inept Shakespearian actor (that would be Hughes) and, to be honest, Teller (himself).

Ritchie's production includes a number of visual gags which wink at the arrangements of the old songs and the stage necessary fallacy of the appearance of a full fledged carnival in a two house town. The Fantasticks stumbles a bit between Acts, there being no way to make a smooth transition. Blink after a major dance number and you'll miss it. Visually, this is a shimmering delight and flat out (everybody say it with me now) gorgeous.

Not a particularly Cranky thing to say. But The Fantasticks is one of those flicks that should be seen on the big screen.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Fantasticks, he would have paid...


We put The Fantasticks at dateflick level, which got us a royal talking down to from the parental units. Unlike wretched story, tremendous special effects films which also get this rating (as they should be seen on the big screen) The Fantasticks is a good film with spectacular visuals that, even if you don't particularly care for the musical form, should be seen on the big screen.

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