Fantasticks [2000]

Having opened off-Broadway in 1960 and still going strong, The Fantasticks would seem a natural for the movies. Or would it? The musical's charm hangs on a particular kind of intimate magic incubated exclusively in live theater. This didn't stop the chiefs of rudderless United Artists from bankrolling a film version in 1995, closely scripted from the play by original authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. With the movie finished, the studio deduced there was no mass audience for the old-fashioned, stage-struck musical, and promptly set it on the shelf for five years. A slimmer version of the film was briefly released to theaters in 2000, after being cut by Francis Coppola (with the approval of director Michael Ritchie). The cutting, sometimes within songs, seems capricious--if the movie was destined to be a flop either way, why not let it play out at full length? All of this ought to set off alarm bells... and yet, it turns out there's a bit of theatrical pixie dust left in the old thing after all. Ritchie and topnotch cinematographer Fred Murphy shoot many of the songs beautifully, setting them in the film's postcard-Midwest magic hour (best seen on the widescreen DVD). The genial tone, though admittedly precious, makes for a pleasant ride. It's a movie preadolescent girls can watch with their grandmothers without embarrassment on either side. Playing the archetypal boy and girl are former New Kid on the Block Joe McIntyre and Mr. Holland's Opus songbird Jean Louisa Kelly; he fits the part of an amiable doofus very well, while Kelly has the breathless dreaminess of youth and an intriguing undercurrent of restlessness. Their feuding fathers are the able Joel Grey and Brad Sullivan, and Jonathan Morris looks every inch the carnival maestro who gives these simple folk a glimpse at their dreams. Curiously, the show's signature song ("Try to Remember") is given only an abbreviated airing at the end. And how dare they cut "Plant a Radish"? --Robert Horton

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