Reviewed by James Karas
Fiddler on the Roof gets a sensational production at the Stratford Festival that is a pleasure to watch from the first violin chords to the final expulsion of the residents of Anatevka, Russia. There is no nitpicking, no reservations, no adverse comments just fulsome praise for theatre at its best.
Fiddler on the Roof is nearing its 50th anniversary (it opened on Broadway in 1964) and it is, by any measuring stick, a great musical. Based on stories by Sholom Aleichem, it has a plot that is moving, funny and infused with such humanity that it tugs at everyone’s heartstrings. The people are unforgettable, the music and songs are memorable and the dance routines stupendous.
Now all you need is a first-rate director/choreographer, an outstanding cast and an army of behind-the-scenes workers and hope that theatrical magic will descend like manna from heaven for a theatrical marvel.
Stratford struck gold. Tevye, the poor milkman with five daughters who talks to God but gets no answers, dominates the musical. The role was originally played on Broadway by the inimitable Zero Mostel and a number of other actors such as Topol, Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel and Harvey Fierstein have followed. Add the name of Scott Wentworth to the list as one of the best Tevyes. I associate Wentworth with Shakespearean roles but he makes an awesome Tevye. He is wonderfully human – funny, dramatic, humane, narrow-minded, generous, put-upon and cruel in his treatment of his daughter who marries outside the faith. Wentworth gives a performance that entitles him to the highest praise and a contract to do Tevye for as long as he wants.
The rest of the cast deserves the highest praise as well because they make you feel that you are in a remote Russian village in 1905 and not watching theatre in Stratford, Ontario. Tevye’s tough-minded and enduring wife Golde is done marvelously by Kate Hennig. Their three older daughters Tzeitel (Jennifer Stewart), Hodel (Jacquelyn French) and Chava (Keely Hutton) are young girls everywhere who are dreaming of the future and looking for husbands. In their society, only a matchmaker like Yente (Gabrielle Jones) is allowed to do that and the final decision rests with the father.
None of Tevye’s daughters respect that tradition. Tzeitel marries Motel, the tailor (Andre Morin) instead of Lazar the butcher (Steve Ross); Hodel marries the radical Perchik (Mike Nadajewski) without asking for her father’s consent and Chava marries the Russian Fyedka (Paul Nolan) and Tevye declares her “dead”. He does mutter a “God be with you” when they separate, he for America, she for Poland but that is as far as he is willing to go.
Fiddler on the Roof has some of Broadway’s most memorable music and songs. From the Fiddler’s plaintive and nostalgic music (played beautifully by violinist Anna Atkinson, to the exuberant “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” the melodious “Matchmaker”, the moving “Sunrise, Sunset” you are treated to magnificent music and lyrics. The singing is excellent.
Let’s sing the praises of Donna Feore as director and choreographer. As director, she captures the essence of the musical as the picture of a community trying to maintain the essential elements that keep it together in a world that is changing fast. What was tradition one day becomes unacceptable the next and people like Tevye are asked to compromise or bend so far that they are on the verge of breaking.
There is a long list of actors and dancers in the programme listed as The Community. That is the focal point of the musical because the destruction of the village and the vision of America as the hope for the future are the connecting links between tragedy and hope. We see and become a part of the community and we want it to stay and change. You cannot have both. Great work by Feore.
She has also choreographed the production. Fiddler provides some great opportunities for heroic and highly demanding athletic dancing and Feore has done outstanding work in choreographing for those scenes.
I think I have gushed enough about a musical and a production that merit the word triumph. Go see it.______
Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) opened on May 28 and will run in repertory until October 20, 2013 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario.www.stratfordfestival.ca