STAGE TO SCREEN: Fantastick Frustrations and Urban Delights

STAGE TO SCREEN: Fantastick Frustrations and Urban Delights On one level, “The Fantasticks” is the kind of filmed musical that purists always say they crave. The songs are largely untouched and in the right order, although “It Depends on What You Pay” and its rape references have been replaced with the less catchy “Abductions,” in keeping with most non-New York productions. No characters have been removed or (with the exception of a few mute circus performers) added. As you’ve seen here in a previous column, director Michael Ritchie has a real soft spot for the show and clearly set out to bring it to the screen faithfully.

On one level, “The Fantasticks” is the kind of filmed musical that purists always say they crave. The songs are largely untouched and in the right order, although “It Depends on What You Pay” and its rape references have been replaced with the less catchy “Abductions,” in keeping with most non-New York productions. No characters have been removed or (with the exception of a few mute circus performers) added. As you’ve seen here in a previous column, director Michael Ritchie has a real soft spot for the show and clearly set out to bring it to the screen faithfully.

That’s the problem. The Fantasticks scraps reality so blatantly and gleefully that any adaptation has its work cut out for it. Film has become largely a realm of pure fact: Movies like “Being John Malkovich” and “Urbania” (see below) derive much of their energy from the almost illicit kick one gets upon seeing even the slightest fracturing of reality. Suspending disbelief, one of the absolute requirements of any musical, is much, much easier in the theater.

Ritchie, along with co-creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, play with that notion by adding a wistful sort of rules-bending theatricality to the film. While the plot stays resolutely faithful to the stage version, the setting has been opened up greatly. The creators wisely recognized that the traditional bare-bones staging -- with nothing but a box of props and some confetti -- wouldn’t work. Their solution was to root the young lovers and their fathers in two realistic farmhouses while placing El Gallo’s realm of mystery in a traveling circus complete with midgets and bearded ladies.

The carnival setting works -- sometimes. Putting the young lovers’ opening duet, “Metaphor,” in a movie theater and contrasting it with a silent “Romeo and Juliet” works very well. But “Round and Round” falls flat in this innocuous setting, and “Try to Remember” deserves better than a wistful final number. Also, the relatively tight budget ($10 million or so) clearly ties Ritchie’s hands in terms of special effects; several of El Gallo’s supposedly amazing feats look downright chintzy.

Meanwhile, the disparity between “real” and “not real” makes the farmhouse songs that much harder to take. For example, the songs for the two fathers, well played by Joel Grey and the less familiar Brad Sullivan, are practically vaudeville numbers. The decision to cut “Plant a Radish” (part of the massive trim reportedly done by Francis Ford Coppola) points out the inherent problem of staging these lyrics on an actual front porch. And while it sure is nice to hear Jonathan Tunick’s hugely expanded orchestrations, they may not serve the piece all that well. The admittedly gorgeous sound often drowns out the lyrics and inflates several of the songs to an unwise degree. Ritchie’s decision to have the actors sing live on the set (instead of in a recording studio after the fact) adds to the verisimilitude but doesn’t help the imbalance in sound. Sadists looking for a cinematic train wreck will be disappointed: “The Fantasticks” isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination. In any given month, I’ll see at least two movies that deserve to spend five years on the shelf. This isn’t one of them. With the exception of Jonathan Morris’ arch El Gallo, the performances are all solid; Barnard Hughes and Teller are especially likable as the two actors. But it does the stage production few favors. Detractors can point to it as proof that the overblown whimsy doesn’t hold up, and fans will most likely feel something crucial is missing. After five years of waiting (and apparently 40 years of thought on Ritchie’s part), it’s not unreasonable to expect more.

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I’m hesitant to fall into the trap of slamming Hollywood product and singing the praises of low budgets across the board. I love big, splashy movies, and an awful lot of independent films about relationships ring about as true as “Big Momma’s House.”

That said, the low-budget drama “Urbania,” which is currently playing in about 15 cities, couldn’t be more different from “The Fantasticks.” It’s a dark, edgy drama about a New York City gay man pondering how much violence there is in his battered soul. Still, it manages to find the balance between stage and screen, between storytelling and dreamweaving, that the other film so often misses. It has a superb central performance by Dan Futterman and as crisp a visual style as I’ve seen in months. The film, adapted from Daniel Reitz’s play Urban Folk Tales, may not be for all tastes, but it’s certainly worth your attention.

The plot follows the kindly Charlie (Futterman) on an unusually long night -- the night that daylight savings time ends. Over the next several hours, Charlie recounts and experiences a half-dozen or so urban myths while reliving -- or maybe constructing, or maybe just imagining -- his own traumatic past.

These urban legends are the trickiest part of the story. You’ve heard most of them before -- the harvested kidney, the dog in the microwave -- and some of them are better integrated than others. (1998’s wretched “Urban Legends” covered a fair amount of this ground — I do not know and do not wish to know if the sequel, which opened Sept. 22, does the same.) But director Jon Shear is onto something here. Charlie is in the process of mythologizing his own terrible experience and that of his lover (sensitively played by Matt Keeslar; the context of these patently false tales lets Shear play with the shifting reality of Charlie’s mind without slighting the savage events that precipitate his nocturnal odyssey.

He is helped immeasurably by cinematographer Shane F. Kelly, whose work is new to me. Simply put, this movie looks phenomenal. It was filmed entirely in New York, but several places look like the heightened New York that Stanley Kubrick so painstakingly fabricated in “Eyes Wide Shut.” The camera dips and lurches along with Charlie in the more phantasmagoric scenes, but Shear also knows when to calm down and let the actors tell the story.

Now, I don’t want to oversell “Urbania.” For all of its stunning visuals, more time appears to have been devoted to the editing than to the actual filming. The script can be overly glib, and several performances don’t come off. (Alan Cumming’s portrayal of a flamboyant pal stands out as particularly tired.) And with the exception of one particularly nasty sequence involving a roll of photos, the urban legends depicted here often feel like a rehash. But Futterman’s central performance is extraordinary. He makes sense of all the changes in style and mood, turning this not-terribly-believable character into a roiling mixture of saint and devil. He grounds the camera tricks and helps turn “Urbania” into a pleasant, if flawed, treat.

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Cutting-Room Floor: London playwright Jim Cartwright has kept a pretty low profile since The Rise and Fall of Little Voice came out a few years ago, but he recently resurfaced in two pretty big projects. Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “The Beach”) will direct Cartwright’s “Vacuuming Nude in Paradise” and “Strumpet” back to back for the BBC in Manchester. ... All may not be well with “The Bacchae.” The modern-day retelling of Euripides’ gory classic has apparently lost several leading actors (including Alan Bates, who’s rehearsing Yasmina Reza’s New York-bound The Unexpected Man in London) and such high-profile musical contributors as P.J. Harvey and Radiator. Shooting is expected to continue through Oct. 3. ... By the time you read this, “Dancer in the Dark” will have made its U.S. debut; it begins its New York run the day after opening the New York Film Festival on Sept. 22. Look for Public Theatre mainstay Paul Calderon in the Sundance favorite “Girlfight” and a batch of young New York talent (Timothy Olyphant, Matt McGrath, Billy Porter) in the gay ensemble comedy “The Broken Hearts Club,” both opening Sept. 29. Alan Cumming pops up again opposite Sylvester Stallone in “Get Carter” on Oct. 6. That’s also when Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled,” starring Savion Glover, and Tap Dogs impresario Dein Perry’s “Bootmen” open.

My Favorite Thought: Jeremy helps put “Fantasticks” anxiety into perspective:

"Once upon a time, I would have said that the naturalism required in film would be automatic death to a creation as fragile as The Fantasticks. But then I remember thinking that it would kill Little Shop of Horrors as well -- and I was certain that Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette would have to be cut from the film, since as a doo-wop Greek chorus they are awfully stage-bound. Not so. Frank Oz found a delightful way of filming the show on a sound stage and booting naturalism (at least partially) out the door.

“So it can be done. But has it been?”

Your Thoughts: Well? Has it been done? Did “The Fantasticks” live up to your wildest hopes (or worst fears)? Has anyone else seen “Urbania”? What about “Dancer in the Dark”?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.