Based on the longest running off-Broadway musical of the same name, “The Fantasticks” has two fathers scheming to get their kids to fall in love and marry. After romance does spark and the fairy-tale ending seems as sure to blossom as a Kansas sunflower, all of a sudden the realities of life begin to replace the “tinsel sky” of romantic love. The grand romance of Act One is replaced by the symbolic loss of innocence in Act 2. Ah, but it wouldn’t be a great musical without a satisfying and hopeful Act Three. In other words, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Hey, it’s a musical. The simple, corny premise is as necessary to the romantic musical as the monster is to Frankenstein.
Made five years ago, the studio had shelved the film, worrying that the musical had seen its day. Madonna’s “Evita” had bombed at the box office and the gentle romantic quality of musical comedy didn’t seem promising when edgy and gross-out material was the in-thing for young ticket buyers. Even teen girls were wanting kicka– movies. But finally, to the glee of many young women still in love with the teen heartthrob, Joe McIntyre, the studio is bravely testing the waters. With the edgy and gross-out material still popular with the movie-going public, I predict a brief theatrical release before this one heads to video-land. (I hope I’m wrong, I hope I’m wrong). So if you want to see this old fashioned musical on the big screen, I wouldn’t wait till after the summer harvest.
Director Michael Ritchie has done a wonderful job transferring the stage play to the screen, placing the setting in a rural farm community where the corn is as high as an elephants eye. Somehow this tranquil setting adds to the plausibility of lonely people in an out of the way place suddenly bursting into song. (I’ve always suspected that’s what good country folk do in the soft summer twilight). Filmed with a simplistic look and using a minimalist approach to staging, the filmmakers have done a magical job of situating us in the center of the goings on. All at once, we are there, all of us young and all of us trying to remember when we were still callow fellows.
Joe McIntyre does a credible job in the thankless role of the film’s hero, but it is Jean Louisa Kelly who mesmerizes as the young beauty who wants romance, but also wants to travel the world with her very own hero. Audiences may remember Ms. Kelly as the musical student who tempts her teacher to run away with her in “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” The beguiling Ms. Kelly was born to be a musical actress. The only problem is, she may have been born too late. With musicals coming even less frequently than the western, she may not get a chance to use that golden voice often enough in front of the camera, and that will be our loss.
There is some bawdy carnival humor and one scene where cardboard cutouts of Rubinesque women are featured, showing bare breasts. This scene is used symbolically, suggesting the world’s temptation. The film is not about lust, but about love conquering all. The score features “Try to Remember,” “Soon it’s Gonna Rain,” and my favorite in the film, “They Were You” – one of the most romantic movie moments I’ve seen in a long time.