ARTSMONDAY: ‘Fantasticks’ Keeps Light, Fun Tone of Original Classic

“The Fantasticks” is a show that has always prided itself on tradition-bound simplicity. In keeping with this institution, Harvard STAGE’s recent production of the musical in the Agassiz Theatre was adept but conventional, with its success as an enjoyable playgoing experience due as much to the latter quality as to the former.

For most of the year, Harvard STAGE (Student Theater Advancing Growth & Empowerment) is a charitable student organization that educates Boston-area middle school students about theater. In May, however, the group traditionally puts on one full-scale production.

Its latest work, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s “The Fantasticks,” is largely a paint-by-numbers show. Directors Laura S. Hirschberg ’09 and Sean P. Bala ’09 chose to stage the play as it has usually been performed since its off-Broadway opening in 1960, striving for the same wistful tone and minimal set that straddle the boundary between the homemade and the “fantastical.”

The show, which was produced by Rory M. Sullivan ’09, tells the story of two neighbors who feign a feud, putting up a wall between their houses, so that their children will fall in love and they can merge their households. By the end of the first act, everything has gone according to plan. But as the childhood lovers grow up in the second act, they break up and strike out in search of adventure—only to return home to each other, older and wiser.

Harvard STAGE’s production of “The Fantasticks” distinguished itself in the strength of its performers. Not only did Jennifer L. Brown ’07 (Luisa) and Arlo D. Hill ’08 (Matt), the two leads, boast rich, pure singing voices, but their acting also tempered the mawkish sincerity of the show’s script with a subtly ironic twist.

Other actors who delivered scene-stealing performances included Baruch Y. Shemtov ’09 and Benjamin K. Glaser ’09 as Hucklebee and Mortimer, respectively. The small-framed, raspy-voiced Shemtov has played improbable roles before, as in his performance as Big Babushka in “Slavs” last year. He delivered again in “The Fantasticks” with a brassy, over-the-top and yet consistently impressive interpretation of Hucklebee, an angry, middle-aged gardening-enthusiast father.

Meanwhile, Glaser’s Mortimer, the sidekick to Henry (Jonah C. Priour ’09), threw his whole body into well-executed slapstick. Glaser’s acting was particularly effective in the show’s stylized fight scenes, which allowed the full expression of his immense comedic talents.

The set, designed by the directors, and the costume design (by Olivia A. Benowitz ’09) were all in keeping with the rest of the production’s aesthetics: namely, they followed the conventional norms of New York’s longest-running musical. The trappings of the production consisted of no more than a handful of minimal, stylized props that evoked a nostalgic idea of young love—and this gave the production a fittingly traditional tone.

Indeed, without its characteristic cardboard moon, handfuls of confetti, and brightly-colored cloth draped across the black pipe structure that is the central set piece. “The Fantasticks” would have been an altogether different show.

Yet adherence to these traditions was not free from controversy. One song, “It Depends On What You Pay,” foregrounds the word “rape” and details a number of ways one might commit the act based on the idea that “rape” once simply meant “to take by force.” The directors addressed the issue directly in the program, writing, “As the predominant connotation of the word shifted over time, [the playwrights] Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt adjusted the text to make it extra-clear that ‘rape’ in this context means ‘abduction…seizure…kidnapping.’” The directors were correct that the meaning of the word changed, but the change occurred in the 15th century at the latest. By 1960, “rape” meant what it means today; all that changed in the interim was the political climate.

The song, though clever, was and remains a disturbingly blithe treatment of sexual assault. Of course, cutting the song would be impossible, while whitewashing the song, as many have done (often substituting the word “raid” for “rape”) would have detracted from the show while failing to confront the issue.

Still, a small directorial departure from the otherwise orthodox production to indicate an on-stage awareness of the controversy subtending the number would have been appropriate.

“The Fantasticks” is a show that has already begun to show its age—but not necessarily for the worse. In this sense, the Agassiz is not the only thing that “The Fantasticks” and the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ productions have in common.

Like any Gilbert and Sullivan show, “The Fantasticks” features a light and remarkably epochal musical score, archetypal characters, and, indeed, a measure of innocence. The show is a kitschy, albeit delightful, musical, and Harvard STAGE’s production is commendable for its faithful evocation of the original classic.