Forgotten Film Review: “The Fantastiks”

“The Fantastiks” hung around American life for decades, lingering like The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. You knew it was there, and it seemed it always has been and always would be — even if you never got around to seeing it yourself.

The longest running musical ever, it inhabited its corner of Off-Broadway from 1960-2002, with the odd revival here and there, attempts at getting it a foothold abroad. And its simplicity, adorability and durability made it a favorite of regional and community theaters far and wide.

I know I’ve seen it once or twice on the stage. And I never ceased to be amazed by the actors and singers who got their start in it and affectionately brought it up. Jerry Orbach finally shows America he was a singer, and not a cop, all along with Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Yeah, he told me. It’s not like anybody outside of New York caught him on “42nd Street,” or saw him originate the colorful El Gallo in “Fantastiks” way back in 1960.

Glenn Close and Robert Goulet, Elliott Gould and John Davidson (actor, game show host and Broadway vet, touring with an “Oklahoma!” revival at the time) all mentioned it with love in interviews.

Broadway legend Joel Grey and former New Kid on the Block Joe McIntyre lamented the film’s fate in interviews in the late ’90s — Grey because the 1995 film looked like his last chance at a big screen musical, McIntyre because his movie career was stillborn, waiting for the movie to finally come out in 2000.

But here it, as most everybody missed it in theaters, ignored it on cable or failed to bother tracking down the DVD, the last movie in director Michael Ritchie’s uneven but star-kissed (“Bad News Bears,” “Fletch,” “Golden Child,” “Smile”) career.

And we talk about the show’s history and think of it as we watch because, whatever charms the movie captures in the leap from stage to screen are thin. All its mashed-up stage genres and conventions — commedia del arte, American musical theater, whiffs of this and that — was always going to seem quaint on camera. Ritchie’s sturdy, pedestrian direction and the hit-and-miss casting doom it.

Not that it doesn’t trick us into thinking, “This just might work” early on.

There’s a sparkling love duet sung in front of a silent film, one of the many entertainments The Congress of the World’s Strangest People and Attractions” offers when it stops in a small town in the 1920 Midwest.

The film’s El Gallo, hustler, con-man, rake and master of ceremonies (Jonathan Morris) never had a break-out film career. But he channels just enough Kevin Kline swagger to delight.

“There is a curious paradox that no one can explain: who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain? Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain, or why we all must die a bit before we grow again?”

Those grand old hoofers Grey, Barnard Hughes (“Doc Hollywood”) and Brad Sullivan (“Slap Shot”) give it their all.

The romantic leads are cute enough, with Jean Louisa Kelly (as Luisa) having a fine voice, and McIntyre never less than an adequate one.

But the movie, bathed in period piece Americana and a goofy plot about two “feuding” fathers (Grey and Sullivan) staging that feud to lure their kids (Kelly and McIntyre) into falling in love, a scheme assisted (at a price) by El Gallo and the Congress players, just lies there.

A few passably forgettable songs and one enduring classic (“Try to Remember”) later, it’s over and fans of the play puzzle over “What just didn’t happen here?”

My first thought was that Ritchie, a set-the-camera-up-and-let-the-actors-do-it filmmaker, was just wrong for this decades-delayed project. Somebody with a more fanciful take, a Julie Taymor/Terry Gilliam of some sort, would have razzle-dazzled it up, or at least given us more of that early “magic” of a traveling tent show.

Hughes, teamed with the silent magician-comic Teller, serves up a little of that “Old Actor” Shakespearean excess, and Morris cuts loose in the few scenes where that’s called for.

Grey and Sullivan vamp through their frenemies duet, but most of their scenes play flat. The intimate musical’s energy and heart is lost when it is “opened up” and exposed to the elements.

That seems to be the crux of the problem. You can’t open up something this delicate, dainty and dated for the screen. The reasons it took so very long to become a movie and such a malnourished one at that was that generations of film folk with adaptation expertise recognized “The Fantastiks” as slight, a gossamer musical that would die outside the theater. No amount of cash can compensate for that, although a more charismatic cast might have helped.

It is what it has long seemed on the stage, “quaint.” And quaint doesn’t translate to the screen.

MPAA Rating: PG for some bawdy carnival humor

Cast: Jean Louisa Kelly, Joe McIntyre, Jonathan Morris, Teller, Brad Sullivan, Barnard Hughes and Joel Grey

Credits: Directed by Michael Ritchie, script by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, adapted from their stage musical. An MGM release on Amazon, Tubi etc.

Running time: 1:26

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