Final Bow, Endless Enchantment
With five performances to go, the off-Broadway production of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s musical phenomenon The Fantasticks comes to an end this Sunday, after racking up 17,162 performances in its original 1960-2002 run and another 4,369 in this revival that opened in the summer of 2006 at a pocket-sized venue renamed for the show’s original El Gallo, the Jerry Orbach Theater. A gossamer fable of splendid simplicity and moving musicality regularly staged all over the world in venues large and small – but which always become intimate when this whimsically theatrical material seizes the boards, it may be taking a respite from the Big Apple but hardly from public view. It’s been an amateur and professional proving ground for budding talent through the decades, ever adaptable – and not about to stop. In the final weeks of the current Manhattan run, lyricist/librettist Jones was reportedly updating lyrics to the climactic whirligig Round and Round number. So no one production of it can truly encapsulate it, only stir its magical ingredients in distinctive ways. A shortened and abbreviated October 18, 1964 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production had top-drawer talent to spare – Ricardo Montalban as the seductive El Gallo, Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway as the two fathers, John Davidson and Susan Watson as the romantically entangled neighbors – and condensed the show into a one-hour timeslot [Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hR5EK1wS7s8]. However, the long-delayed and textually faithful film version of The Fantasticks (completed in 1995 and theatrically unveiled in 2000) realized by director Michael Ritchie invested the material with a quality not achievable on a stage: Americana-flavored size and achingly poignant beauty derived from panoramic Arizona location filming by cinematographer Fred Murphy (The Trip to Bountiful, Hoosiers, The Dead) and a clever shift of the role of El Gallo (British actor Jonathon Morris) from seductive stage narrator to roguish manager of an elaborately ornate traveling carnival that triggers the romantic complications and ultimate “wising-up” of the piece’s “Romeo and Juliet” played by Joe McIntyre and Jean Louisa Kelly. Another plus for the movie screen is the gorgeous array of orchestrations by stage and screen veteran – and EGOT (Emmy®/Grammy®/Oscar®/Tony®) winner – Jonathan Tunick, long-time collaborator of Stephen Sondheim, another legendary tunesmith who like Jones is not averse to tinkering with his original compositions to suit new and reconceived productions. What is unique to the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray presentation of The Fantasticks is two versions of the film: the 87-minute 2000 Theatrical Release in 1080p high-definition and the 109-minute 1995 Original Cut – more a structural match to the original play with songs and scenes that were later excised as a result of a worried studio’s market testing – in standard definition. Also delightfully specific to this production are two inspired choices to play the two not-so-feuding fathers, Joel Grey and Brad Sullivan, and the presence of the wonderful Barnard Hughes (as the Old Actor), Teller (of Penn &… fame) and members of the Michael Smuin Ballet troupe of San Francisco, lending theatrical dazzle to this cinematic rendering of the dreamlike Round and Round sequence. With both cuts available, the score’s bountiful bouquet of 11 exquisite songs is allowed full bloom: from Much More, Never Say No and Soon It’s Gonna Rain to I Can See It, They Were You and the indelible Try to Remember. Remembrances of the film are plentiful and pointed on TT’s Blu-ray: three Audio Commentaries variously feature director Ritchie, co-star Kelly and experts on musicals and this project’s troubled screen incarnation. The curtain may drop for the final time Sunday on a New York stage, but TT’s lovely disc keeps The Fantasticks’ evergreen footlights aglow.