BWW Reviews: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Offers More Than Just a Traditional Story About Freedom of Choice
Each year, Long Beach Playhouse closes its Mainstage Season with a musical. This year it's presenting the popular classic, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein. When it opened on Broadway 50 years ago in 1964, the musical was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won nine. In 1971, it was made into a movie, produced and directed by Norman Jewison, starring Chaim Topol who was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Tevye the Milkman.
Set in 1905 Czarist Russia, the musical opens with Tevye (Martin Feldman) breaking the fourth wall as he explains to the audience that what keeps the Jews of Anatevka going is the balance they achieve through following their ancient traditions. He also explains that the lot of the Jews in Russia is as precarious as a fiddler on a roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant tune while not breaking their necks. In fact, the fiddler (Brenna Hanlen) appears throughout this production as a metaphoric reminder of the Jews' ever-present fears and danger, and also as a symbol of the traditions being explained or challenged in the scene.
The opening number "Tradition" sets the tone for the entire show, and Ellen Prince certainly knows how to best utilize the long and narrow thrust stage, pulling the audience in with cast members surrounding them on all sides throughout the house. The same can be said for the show's director Phyllis B. Gitlin, a theatre-arts educator who has directed more than 200 productions during her 30-year career. She manages to block the actors so no one section winds up seeing just the backs of actors most of the time. The task is daunting to be sure and requires actors to be constantly aware of playing to all three sides of the house, often moving in ways that seem unnatural for the scene but work to the best advantage in the space. Nathanial Brown serves as the musical director, and his touch is especially apparent in the lovely vocal harmonies during the large ensemble numbers.
The actors, 24 in all, are a mix of LBP veterans and those for whom this is their first time to tread the boards at the Playhouse. The choice to cast the show multi-ethnically was a bit off-putting from a traditional standpoint, given the reality of who really would have lived in Anatevka in 1905. Certainly the Rabbi's Asian son would have been quite a novelty, as would a black Fyedka. But once the surprise wears off, it's the characters and their stories you will remember.
The action in FIDDLER focuses on Tevye, a humble dairy farmer and his quest to find suitable mates for his five daughters. Despite his efforts, the daughters are feeling the influences of a world beyond the village and against his wishes, make their own decisions on whom to marry. Martin Feldman brings just the right amount of Jewish gravitas and humor to the role, giving us a Tevye who loves his traditions but ultimately loves his daughters even more - until one of them follows her heart outside the faith. But even then he still loves her, and Feldman lets us see and feel his torment when his inability to let go of his religious beliefs pulls his daughter Chava (Sara Lipowsky) from his life.
The thorn in Tevye's side is his ever-nagging wife Golde, played by Harriet Whitmyer as a woman who knows she really is in charge of the household but must acquiesce to her husband's ego and let him think he rules the roost. While claiming she is not afraid of anything Tevye may say, she knows her fortunes are inexplicably tied to him as the breadwinner. Their lovely harmonies and comedic banter during "Do You Love Me?" brings into focus what should matter in all relationships, and makes theirs feel all the more familiar.
Jeremy Krasovic imbues Motel with all the Jewish nebbishness necessary for the mild-mannered tailor. His joy in obtaining Tevye's blessing to marry his eldest daughter Tzeitel (Jennifer Sales) soars from his soul to the heavens in "Miracle of Miracles." The same is true of Dennis Adrian Dyck's Perchik, the radical student who challenges traditions that separate men and women and wins the heart of second daughter Hodel (Melissa Deni). Her heartbreaking solo "Far From The Home I Love" was shortened in this production, which is a shame as it is the loveliest ballad in the show and Deni certainly captured the angst of her decision to follow Perchik to Siberia so they can be married.
Other standouts include Jess Paxton as the formidable Constable, Russell Malang physically-challenged Nahum the Beggar, and Roxanne Martinez as Yente the Matchmaker.
The main drawback in this production is the canned music track which prevents the actors from going-with-the-flow when singing as they are bound to the non-changing melodies. Several times the track and singing did not match, especially when a heartfelt moment had to be artificially shortened to match the track. This is a show that celebrates life and it would be better to allow the singers to celebrate it each night as the spirit moves them.
FIDDLER is a show for the entire family as it shares a story all too familiar in today's news; one set of people pushing out another strictly based on religious beliefs. Any child being bullied certainly knows how it feels to be persecuted for nothing more than being who they are. One can only hope the human race can someday really embrace a "live and let live" attitude so the world may really be at peace and families can flourish.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at the Long Beach Playhouse, located at 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, CA, 90804, continues at 8:00pm Friday, and Saturday and 2:00pm Sunday through August 16. The box office is open Wednesday-Saturday from 3:00-8:00 pm and Sundays from 1:00-2:00pm on scheduled matinees. Adults are $24.00, seniors $21.00, and Students $14.00. Tickets are available at www.lbplayhouse.org, or by calling 562-494-1014, option 1.
Photography by Robert Craig
Martin Feldman (TEVYE), Brenna Hanlen (FIDDLER)
The Long Beach Playhouse cast of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Golde sings the prayer at the Sabbath table BACK ROW: Harriet Whitmyer (GOLDE), Martin Feldman (TEVYE), Jennifer Bales (TZEITEL), Jeremy Krasovic (MOTEL), Dennis Adrian Dyck (PERCHIK), FRONT ROW: Melissa Deni (HODEL), Mariyah Duffie (BIELKE), Sara Lipowsky (CHAVA)
Motel celebrates the "Miracle of Miracles" - Jeremy Krasovic (MOTEL), Jennifer Bales (TZEITEL)
Perchik breaks tradition and dances with Hodel - Dennis Adrian Dyck (PERCHIK), Melissa Deni (HODEL),
Martin Feldman (TEVYE), Melissa Deni (HODEL)
Martin Feldman (TEVYE), Harriet Whitmyer (GOLDE)