BWW Reviews: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Is a Long But Moving Evening at Portland Center Stage
One of the most famous quotes regarding Fiddler on the Roof came from the producer of the first Japanese production, who said to the writers, "Do they understand this show in America? It's so Japanese!" Well, you don't have to be Japanese, or Jewish, or anything else to understand Fiddler. Most of us are immigrants, or children of immigrants, and even if we were born in the United States, we've heard tales of what happened in the old country. The Ukrainian Jews on my mother's side of the family somehow ended up as devout Catholics living in Alberta, Canada, and a generation later my mother was learning Latin in Detroit. Fiddler speaks to all of us of the necessity of community and tradition.
It's virtually a one-man show. Tevye the milkman is trying to marry off his five daughters while keeping on the good side of God, the cossacks, and his wife, Golde - not necessarily in that order. It's not a show where a director can be very innovative; who wants to see a reinvented Fiddler? It's set in a very specific time and place, opening with a song called "Tradition." The best productions highlight the show's strengths and hopefully paper over its weaknesses. Tevye is the only fully realized character in the piece; he's temperamental, mercurial, and stubborn, and the right actor can play with the shtick written into the part while still retaining the dramatic heft of the piece. However, most of the other characters are underwritten; Golde is all bark and no bite, the daughters are bland and interchangeable, and the other townspeople are there to populate the ensemble numbers. This doesn't give a director or his cast much to work with.
The set, by G.W. Mercier, is just stunning, a semicircle of wooden panels surrounding a floor covered with sawdust. It gives the feeling of the inside of a very large cabin - or a deep forest. The panels swivel to let in light, and the various configurations make for fascinating patterns of movement during the show. Ann Wrightson's lighting also helps immensely, making every scene specific.
Director Chris Coleman opens the show with the cast lined up diagonally across the stage, suitcases in hand, as if waiting to be processed at Ellis Island. Tevye (David Studwell), at the back of the line, turns to the fellow next to him and begins reminiscing about his hometown, and "Tradition" begins. It's a wonderful opening number, and we get a sense of the village. Fiddler , however, has a very long first act, stuffed with comedy and shtick, and by the time we arrive at intermission the show hasn't made much of an impression. The second act, however, is shorter and more intense, and by the end - played without musical accompaniment, and returning to the image of the Jews of Anatevka as immigrants - it's impossible nto to be moved. But it takes a long time to get to that point.
David Studwell works very hard as Tevye. The comic aspects of the role don't seem to come naturally to him, and the accent is a bit of a struggle; Tevye occasionally seems to be from London. But he wins our affection little by little, and he sings gloriously, so when the big scenes come in Act Two, his sheer power as an actor makes the last section of the play work. Susannah Mars has less to work with as Golde, and the role isn't worthy of her great talent, but she has a few good moments (especially "Do You Love Me?"). Likewise, Merideth Kaye Clark as Tzeitel has a good comic scene during "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," but disappears into the ensemble. The other daughters don't get anything good to play, because the writers didn't provide much meat in their scenes,. Likewise, the ensemble contains some obviously talented actors, but they all seem to be there to play straight man to Tevye. (They also seem to have gone to the same dialect coach.)
A few of the supporting actors manage to stand out. Drew Harper, as Motel (Tzeitel's husband), has a knack for bumbling comedy, and he brings a bit of Woody Allen's comic style, along with a terrific voice, to his role. Sharonlee McLean is a terrific Yente, dry and ornery, with a sandpaper wit. She also doubles as Grandma in the dream scene, which gives her a chance to sing well. And I must mention Tylor Neist as the fiddler - he looks the part, participates vividly in the ensemble scenes, and plays the fiddle so beautifully I wanted him to stand there and keep going.