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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A Bittersweet Heart Beats in Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem by special permission of Arnold Perl. 

Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.

Directed by Donna Feore; Musical Direction by Shelly Hanson; designed by Allen Moyer and Dana Osborne

The story: It is 1905 in the small shtetl village of Anatevka, where Tevye the milkman scratches out a living to support his wife Golde and their five daughters. Their lives are based solidly in the traditions of their Jewish faith, but the world outside Anatevka is changing, and those changes threaten both their familiar customs and the very existence of the only lives they have ever known.

Those who fondly remember the last incarnation of Fiddler at Stratford will find Donna Feore's production much warmer, richer and thus more rewarding. Where as "the other" production was very much a Broadway show, Ms. Feore's Fiddler is very much focused on the family and community. That it has the intimate feel of a Tom Patterson-staged show in the massive space that is the Festival Theatre is a credit to both director and cast.

One of the ways they create this warmth is by concentrating on getting the traditions - a core of Tevye's being and the play itself - correct. To do this, Ms. Feore took the extra step of working with a Jewish cultural consultant, Dr. Darren Marks, who made sure the cast had a good grounding in Jewish rituals, gestures, dress and the like. The result is authenticity in every aspect, from the prayer shawls to the Schuckling - the way Jews rock back and forth to intensify their prayers. This authenticity allows the audience to glimpse through a window in time to a way of life that has completely disappeared, which is enlightening and somewhat sad, particularly since modern audiences know what came 30 years later for European Jews.
Barbara Fulton as Grandma Tzeitel and members of the cast. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Another way Ms. Feore and her designers created this understanding is with the inclusion of colour in what in reality would be a brown and grey existence. While the people of Anatevka are in neutral, muted tones, everything Tevye imagines - the heaven above, the nightmarish, hastily-invented masks of the dead and Fruma-Sarah, even the Fiddler - is in bright, Chagall-inspired colour. This allows the audience to be privy to Tevye's mind, the way he thinks, the way he hopes. 

The beating heart of this production is Scott Wentworth as Tevye.  A master craftsman of his art, Mr. Wentworth's gravelly voice suits the hard-working, care-worn Tevye, but it is his acting that solidifies this performance as iconic - the care he takes in connecting to Tevye's family, to his Maker, and to the audience, is unmistakably real.
Scott Wentworth as Tevye and Kate Hennig as Golde.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
As much a master as Mr. Wentworth is Kate Hennig as Golde. Her performance for the most part is a force of nature, so her transformation into a giggling bride when she and Tevye realize they do, in fact, love each other, is a revelation. It is just one small, sweet moment, but it completely anchors their relationship and a theme of the play.

Andre Morin as Motel, Jennifer Stewart
as Tzeitel. Anna Atkinson as the Fiddler
(top). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Of Tevye's five daughters the two with the strongest performances (perhaps because they are written that way) are Jennifer Stewart as Tzeitel and Jacquelyn French as Hodel. Ms. Stewart gives Tzeitel almost enough courage to stand up to her Papa, but it is tempered with capitulation; Ms. French conveys all the surprised hopefulness and fear of a girl who finds herself in love with a man (Perchik) so against her practical and ambitious nature, particularly in the melancholy song "Far from the Home I Love". Their "Matchmaker" number, performed with Keely Hutton as Chava, paints a perfect and enviable picture of sisterly bonding.

André Morin and Mike Nadajewski both inhabit their characters of Motel and Perchik so completely it is hard to imagine anyone else performing them. Mr. Morin is simply hilarious as the nebbish Motel, awkward and gawky, yet able to express passion (in a Motel kind of way )for his two loves - Tzeitel and his sewing machine. As Perchik the "radical" student bent on changing the world, Mr. Nadajewski also embodies his character, finding as much humour in him as fervor, as surprised as Hodel to find himself in love.

A few other performers to note include Robert Markus, who takes the small role of Mendel and makes him memorable by being simply wholly present - there is no other word for it - in every moment he is given; as well as Gabrielle Jones, whose Yente is less a caricature in her hands and more a solid centre of the community. And for the immense feat of rousing a somewhat stuffy opening night crowd into applause mid-note (an unbelievably long, goose-bump-raising note), Lee Siegel deserves a salute, if not a raised glass, for some incredible lung capacity.

Matt Alfano (centre) and members of the cast.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Just one more word for the team of male dancers who perform the taxing "bottle dance" and "cossack" dance: although it is not yet possible for men to fly unassisted, this extraordinary team is close to achieving it. Highest kudos to Matt Alfano, Matthew Arnet, GabrielAntonacci,  Stephen Cota, Galen Johnson, and Julius Sermonia for their incredible aerodynamic feats.

There is no doubt Ms. Feore assembled the best of the best for her production of Fiddler, but it is her attention to detail and the actors' heart and craftsmanship that make this bittersweet story soar. Upon leaving the theatre, one audience member was heard to exclaim, "I didn't want it to end! What happened next?"

Can there be any higher praise for a director and her company?

Fiddler on the Roof continues in repertory until October 20th at the Festival Theatre.

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