Comparing the brawny revival of Fiddler on the Roof that Coronado’s Lamb’s Players Theatre opened this weekend to the trifling, newly minted juke box musicals of the present is a little depressing. And it’s not just Fiddler’s 25-member singing and dancing cast, its score replete with memorable melodies, and a book that is nothing less than a cultural treasure trove.
Fiddler asks big questions. What really is the “tradition” we revere and pass on? What does the younger generation owe its elders? Are today’s revolutionaries wiser than their forebears? Does God care about our daily problems? History, theology, politics—Fiddler’s plot embraces all of the above.
I am tempted to describe the scope of this Jerry Bock musical as Wagnerian, but such a comparison would be uncouth considering the musical’s plot is propelled by violent acts of anti-Semitism.
Robert Smyth, the company’s Producing Artistic Director, forged his polyglot cast into a convincing, bustling shtetl, a community steeped in piety, nourished on gossip, and constantly roiled by the minutiae of daily commerce. Sam Zeller’s Tevye, author Sholem Aleichem’s lovable Milkman as Yiddischer Everyman, brilliantly encompassed a host of contradictory stances—headstrong, judgemental, forgiving, cynical, pious—with evident ease and pleasure. If only his singing had been as bold as his acting; when he should have soared, he hid behind a timid parlando.
Tevye’s three eligible daughters worked out individual variations on independent self-interest. As the oldest daughter Tzeitel,
Charlene Koepf artfully manipulated both her Papa and meek suitor, Brandon Joel Maier’s affable and nerdy Motel the tailor, while keeping up a dutiful front. Catie Grady fused second daughter Hodel with a palpable idealism, and Megan Carmitchel’s Chava, the one who runs off to marry the Gentile Russian soldier, maintained a mischievous glow the whole time. They made a fine vocal trio, although a less nasal ensemble timbre would have been more appropriate for their youthful characters.
Who could resist the bravado of John Rosen’s prosperous butcher Lazar Wolf, or Jason Heil’s aristocratic yet empathetic Constable, or Kerry Meads’ over-the-top, babbling Yente the matchmaker?
Music Director G. Scott Lacey coaxed a stirring, warm sound from the cast when they all sang together, fervor complementing their solid discipline. There were few standout solo vocalists, although Deborah Gilmour Smyth as Tevye’s wife Goldie brough polish and conviction to her songs, and Charles Evans, Jr., gave the provocative young teacher Perchik, a bright, resonant voice.
In my book, the musical stars were the instrumentalists, Ernest Sauceda’s endearing village Fiddler and band leader Mark Danisovszky. Sauceda bowed his dulcet violin refrains while perched high above the stage on a roof peak, defying gravity and perhaps winning the winking approval of painter Marc Chagall from his celestial easel. The reedy sounds and knowing riffs from Danisovszky’s accordion gave the band its appropriate klezmer flavor, tastefully decorated by clarinetist Stefanie Schmitz, cellist Diana Elledge and Sauceda—when he was not fiddling upon the roof.
Colleen Collar Smith’s lively and abundant choreography keeps this lengthy musical light on its feet, alternating some trepak steps for the Russian officers and traditional Hassidic group dances for the villagers. Splaying the band across the back wall of the stage above the actors placed them amusingly in the village skyline of Mike Buckley’s compact, vertical set, with beds, tables and other needed props pulled out from below the band perch. Not a cubic inch of space is wasted on the Lamb’s stage!
Jeanne Barnes Reith’s costumes for the women are probably too bright and varied for daily shtetl life, but then this is a musical[php snippet=1] and not a documentary. The somber black attire for the men in the wedding scene worked well and highlighted Tzeitel’s billowing white wedding gown. Nathan Pierson’s lighting stayed on the bright side—it would be foolish to have all those folks on stage in dim light—but his special effects on the ghosts in Tevye’s dream and the startling apparition of Lazar Wolf’s deceased wife were deft coups de theatre.
If you have even the slightest nostalgia for grand musicals that touch your heart and soul and then give you something to think about the next day, you would be foolish to miss this loving revival of Fiddler on the Roof.