Lincolnshire's 'Fiddler': A Must-See, With Quibbles
Now through April 25, 2010, at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois, is a "Fiddler On The Roof" for our time. It is true that we still have fresh memories of the not-quite ageless actor Topol as Tevye the dairyman, appearing in productions of this Bock-Harnick-Stein musical for almost 45 years (including last year in Chicago) but who is now 74 years old. As of late, actors, directors and designers are in the process of reimagining this jewel of the American musical theater (arguably the last masterpiece of the Golden Age) for 21st century audiences. With the combination of popular character star Ross Lehman as Tevye and David H. Bell as director and choreographer, the Marriott Theatre has mounted a moving and intimate new production of this staple of the repertory, and done so with a few newfound insights, a few lost old ones, but with a lot of the same universal human emotions that have made this show about Russian Jewish peasants a hundred years ago an international favorite for five decades.
I should tell you right off that, where "Fiddler" is concerned, I am a traditionalist. In the mid-1980s I was involved, on and offstage, with three different productions, and darn good ones, if I say so myself. But I understand that the Marriott's in-the-round configuration requires a certain amount of rethinking of any show originally staged in a proscenium theater. And I liked what I initially saw Saturday night at Lincolnshire--a central flat playing space like a road, surrounded by short platforms for levels, one of which contained a clever, hidden well or stream of some kind (set design by Thomas M. Ryan). There were beams with hooks, and not a Marc Chagall swirl in sight. It was all suitably rustic, if not particularly Russian looking. (It might very well have been the set for "110 In The Shade" or "Oklahoma!," or a farm in Wisconsin.)
But I was concerned during the show's legendary opening number, "Tradition," that all but the barest outline of Jerome Robbins' Tony-winning staging had been wiped away. I thought that productions are required to utilize his staging, and include a sentence in the program that reads "Original Choreography By Jerome Robbins Recreated By Ourchore E. Ographer," or some such. Apparently not, for Marriott did not and did not.
Don't get me wrong. Everybody in "the Little Village of Anatevka" had their arms up in that familiar Mediterranean folk-dance pose (but with palms facing out, rather than in), and later on, Tevye and Lazar Wolf hooked arms to drink, some men touched heel to floor while balancing bottles on their hats, and the ghost of Fruma-Sarah (Heidi Kettenring, sounding fantastic) rose up on the hidden shoulders of two chorus boys (with the addition of a big piece of cloth used to much better effect than in that "Wicked" show you may have heard about). But if you are looking for a faithful recreation of Robbins' staging, even adapted for a round (or square, if you'd rather) stage, you will be disappointed.
What will you find instead? A familiar feel, an authentic and vitally lived-in (if mostly overly-scrubbed) staging, wherein a hard-working middle-aged man in a culture vastly different from our own sees the courtship rituals he believes in and then his entire community wiped away, by forces he tries to understand and then ultimately cannot. He can't even bring his traditions with him to the new world at the end, as the metaphor of the Fiddler is used differently by director Bell here. Tevye must remember them from afar instead, and we don't know whether he is successful. It's an interesting take.
Indeed, the first act of this production plays stronger than the second, which I'm not sure is how it usually goes. Once the Fiddler (the excellent Gregory Hirte, playing some of his own bits and pieces, I think) vanishes, the rest seems a little too inevitable. And the cutting of the "comic relief" number "The Rumor" (common for a while now) doesn't help, in that there is no reason to see that all this will end any way but the worst. The audience has no faith left, as we travel the show's lengthy descent into sadness. Cutting the ballet portion of "Chavaleh" doesn't help either--as it is the only moment of imaginative escape the writers gave the second act.
But, oh, the first act! After we realize that this "Fiddler" will demand we engage it on its own terms, the remarkable Rebecca Finnegan and the surprisely dowdy Paula Scrofano deliver the Yente-Golde scene about Tzeitl's marriage prospects with a honed comic sense and a character truthfulness that are a marvel to behold. Too bad Yente mostly vanishes after this point. Tevye and Golde's three eldest daughters, Tzeitl, Hodel and Chava, then deliver a very well-sung "Matchmaker," followed by Lehman's Tevye and his tour-de-force number, "If I Were A Rich Man." The song is impeccably performed, so real in its humor and character touches. Indeed, it is a microcosm of Lehman's entire performance, one of the reasons this production was mounted and one of its chief rewards. While smaller and perhaps older than some Tevyes have been, Lehman dominates the proceedings. You will not want to miss how he wrestles with God, with the Russian oppressors and with his own wife, all the while really wrestling with himself. It's pretty astonishing.
"Sabbath Prayer" was merely the first time of several in the evening when my eyes started to well up. This number retains the magic it has had for three previous generations of theatergoers. "To Life" and the scene preceeding it gave us the quite noble Lazar Wolf of David Girolmo, and some lusty singing and dancing by pretty much the entire the male ensemble, which is what it is for. And then, buckle your seatbelts! The fierce actress Jessie Mueller may very well be turning in a world-class performance at Tzeitl here--I cannot imagine anyone else with her combination of voice, acting chops and sheer gutsy chutzpah in the role. Her scene with Lehman in which Tzeitl begs with her very life, for the ability to marry her childhood sweetheart instead of a wealthy man she doesn't love, rocketed the show into the stratosphere. This first chink in the wall of Tevye's world was shattering, followed by bittersweet joy. Again--you simply must see it. This scene was one of many in which the honest acting of the entire company--surely one of Bell's strong directorial points--was thrillingly realized.
As that grown-up childhood sweetheart, Andrew Keltz was a fascinating mix of man and boy, not the nebbishy problem that other Motels sometimes fall into. (I wonder if Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member and original Broadway cast Motel Austin Pendleton is going to see this production?) Second sister Hodel was beautifully embodied by the beautiful singer Dara Cameron, though her suitor, the student revolutionary Perchik, was the somewhat frumpily dressed Justin Berkobien--usually magnetic but certainly in good singing voice here. Third daughter Chava was portrayed with spunk by Laura Scheinbaum, excellent but a little young looking for the fine Fyedka of the handsome Patrick Sarb.
The clean but certainly detailed costumes for the cast of twenty-three were by the dependable Nancy Missimi, with evocative lighting by Diane Ferry Williams and impeccable sound design by Robert E. Gilmartin. Patti Garwood ably conducted the eight-piece orchestra in the orchestral reductions of David Siegel, including fine woodwind work by Dominic Trumfio and Billy Rogers. And Doug Peck's musical direction was fine, of a score that is not as easy to teach or to learn as one might think--trust me on this one.
So then, how to summarize? Certainly, anyone with an interest in musical theater should see this production. If you know "Fiddler," you will want to debate with others its departures from received tradition. If you don't know this essential work of the field, what are you waiting for? For a very moving and well-performed version of a show that will probably outlive organized religion as we know it, this "Fiddler On The Roof" is required viewing. Correction--it is required experiencing. Whether you are a parent or a child, a traditionalist or an iconoclast, you will not leave the sacred square in Lincolnshire unaffected. This show grapples with the eternal question--how to cope in the face of change? Adapt, or die out? Whether your current challenge is social networking websites, same-sex marriage or changing jobs for the new economy, the resilient souls of Anatevka have something to say you, I guarantee it.
"Fiddler On The Roof" plays Wednesdays through Sundays at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois, now through April 25th. Call the box office at 847-634-0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com for more information.
Photo credit: Peter Coombs and Marriott Theatre