The Latest Â"FiddlerÂ" Tour: Dance: 10, Looks: 8, Script: 10, Sounds: Far From the Show I Love
The latest non-Equity tour of one of the crown jewels of the American musical theater, "Fiddler On The Roof," pulled its bus and truck into the equally landmark Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University this week for a one-week Chicago stay, giving its mostly young and talented cast a chance to do some holiday shopping and, perhaps, sleep late. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's score, Joseph Stein's book and the original choreography of Jerome Robbins all made the trip, courtesy of the director/choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes and assistant Ken Daigle, both of whom have years of experience with this show. Most of these elements are meticulously recreated here.
As someone who has appeared in three productions of the show myself (and was assistant musical director on two of those), I can tell you that the folks behind the scenes of this tour do indeed know what they are doing. Steve Gilliam's smallish scene design owes much to Marc Chagall and Boris Aronson, as it should. Onstage musicians are integrated into the action, which doesn't always happen with this show. And, at least for the Chicago stop of this production, the eight musicians in the orchestra pit have been augmented to twelve, which is unfortunately a far cry from the 1964 original orchestra, which was twice that large, at least.
And that gets to the heart of what's right and wrong with this production. The gut-wrenching story of the upheaval of the lives of Ukranian Jews 100 years ago, and their economic struggles to boot, is told in terms of the gradual unraveling of courtship and marriage traditions that happens in the family of dairyman Tevye, his shrewish but well-meaning wife, Golde, and their five daughters. God is talked to, fantastic dancing takes place (YOU try it, sometime….), the ghostly Fruma-Sarah rides on top of a guy's shoulders under a crazy dream-scene costume, and, at the end, some moments of father-daughter struggle are truly hard to watch in their tragic intensity. This man is struggling to make sense of what's going on with his family and his community. And even though today's audiences are not as directly involved in or as knowledgeable about this sad part of history as Broadway audiences were in the 1960s, this production gets a lot of it very right.
And yet, many of the beloved and effective songs in this production are dispatched at such a quick tempo that I thought for a while on Wednesday evening that Music Director and Conductor David Andrew Rogers was insane. Then, I realized that he must be under strict orders to not go into overtime for the four union-contracted instumentalists in the orchestra pit. On Wednesday, the show ended two hours and fifty-five minutes after its announced starting time, less than five minutes to spare. Thank goodness they didn't perform the rarely-heard number, "The Rumor!" But really, "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "Sabbath Prayer" and "Sunrise, Sunset" were simply much too fast. Nobody, least of all the audience, could breathe.
In the role of Tevye, John Preece, formerly of Baltimore and now residing in Springfield,Illinois, looks like Topol and sounds and acts much like Zero Mostel (two of his better-known predecessors in this iconic role). He is given star treatment here, befitting his biography's assertion that he has played the role over 1,780 times (with another 1, 620 or so other performances of the show in other roles). That's a staggering number of performances, many of them on his ten national tours. And yet, he isn't a union member? That seems odd, to say the least. As Lazar Wolf, David B. Springstead, Sr., also has years of experience with this show, and it shows, in a good way. And as Golde, Pamela B. Chabora has the right approach and a feisty demeanor for this tricky role. She, however, didn't display much in the singing department.
Many of the show's younger actors were disappointing to me in that department as well. Though they danced up a storm, committed themselves to the acting and (pretty much to a person) are recent college graduates of good theater training programs, I was not impressed with a lot of the solo singing. I felt let down by both Hodel (Sarah Sesler) and her beau, Perchik (Joshua Phan-Gruber) in their lyrical songs, even though I liked them as characters. Tzeitel (Brooke Hills) and Motel (Andrew Boza) fared better, as did Michael Schultz in Fyedka's brief tenor solo. Chelsea LeBel was fine as Chava.
The ensemble members (and it's a cast of 29) all look good and seem role-appropriate, with the possible exceptions of Barbi McGuire's Yente and Billy Holly's Rabbi, who (though not right out of college) seemed too young to me. Sound and lighting designs are fine, even superb, and the costumes seem fine as well. But, even though Preece has performed in this show an average of 100 or so times for every year of his adult life, it is the show itself that is the star here. Is that ok? Maybe. It's Jerome Robbins' most personal masterpiece, a former Broadway long-run champion (usurping "Hello, Dolly!" and usurped byChicago's "Grease") and a show that has never, ever, fallen from favor in amateur, college and regional productions.
But the musical elements of this musical have definitely been scaled back in this tour, and, due to the relative inexperience of much of the cast, nothing that's been more accurately revived here has been re-enlivened. It's a little bit too by-the-book, a little bit too well-schooled and not quite spontaneous enough. It's funny and moving, and I think that Preece even ad libs a little bit in the Mostel tradition (or else he's recreating ad libbed bits from his past work). It's "Fiddler," all right, and many in Wednesday's crowd thought they'd had a fine time. But there's a spark that's missing.
I'm recommending this production for its dancing, its completeness regarding the script, and for those curious as to what a full-flesh "Fiddler" looks like. But it didn't sound right to my ears, and, while I adore a more or less scrupulous attempt at a facsimile of a classic show, I felt that this one lacks a spark and an honest foundation in the details. I wish the cast and crew well, but I wish better for Broadway In Chicago audiences.
"Fiddler On The Roof" runs November 22-27 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway in Chicago. Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago box offices, all Ticketmaster retail locations, through the Broadway In Chicago ticket line at 800-775-2000 and online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com.