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Review: MSMT's FIDDLER Weaves a Rich Tapestry of Tradition, Tears, and Joy

Bill Nolte as Tevye

Maine State Music Theatre's third 2016 main stage production is a cause for celebration! After twenty-one years, the beloved Bock-Harnick musical, Fiddler on the Roof returns to the Pickard stage in a monumental production directed and choreographed by Gary John LaRosa, that stunningly weaves a rich and joyous tapestry of laughter, tears, and joy. Maintaining its perfect dramatic and emotional equipoise, this Fiddler on the Roof travels between tradition and change, monumental events and mastery of detail.

As a show, Fiddler on the Roof is a huge undertaking for any company. It is nearly three hours long with an infectious, musically demanding score, challenging Jerome Robbins choreography, and colorful book scenes which call for powerful singing-dancing actors. Moreover, the show requires a deep understanding of both its historical/cultural context and the immediacy of its message for a modern world. All this and more, La Rosa, MSMT's creative team, and a brilliant cast of charismatic performers bring to the Pickard stage with a heartfelt vibrancy.

Director/choreographer Gary John LaRosa is widely acknowledged as one of the leading experts on Fiddler and a strong proponent of honoring the original Jerome Robbins staging/choreography with its balletic and folkloric inspirations and its deft storytelling. Yet, what La Rosa achieves here is no mere recreation, but rather a fresh take on a timeless piece. His eye for both the panoramic and the intimate is striking; his ability to create not only beautiful stage pictures but also to bring them to life with an interiorized humanity is what makes this production so compelling. Allowing each of the thirty-six characters' individual stories to unfold, almost as motifs, he then weaves these into a universal canvas. He manages skillfully the nimble dance between humor and gravity, inviting the audience to share the roller coaster ride that is Tevye's story. Most of all he imbues the piece with a feeling of genuineness; for all the larger-than-life characters and catastrophes in Anatevka, none ever loses its touching truthfulness.

Music Director Brian Cimmet leads the eight-person orchestra with a keen sense of the unforgettable rhythms of the score, and the musicians are to be complimented on some especially emotive playing, with special kudos to Ernest Sauceda's haunting onstage account of the Fiddler. Blessed with both principals and an ensemble who all possess exceptionally fine voices, he shapes a memorable musical evening.

The visual production is beautifully realized in the hands of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, lighting designer Jesse Klug, props designer Ashley Flowers, and the costume team of Michael Bottari, Ronald Case, Ryan Moller, (wigs by Gerard James Kelly). The evocative painted drops that depict the remote wooded landscape of this Russian village are lit in a variety of warm colors that vividly capture the lyrical moments of the work- the sunrise, sunset, the grayish blue twilight, the dusty summer heat or graying winter cold. Tevye's rustic house which unfolds to depict both interior and exterior dominates the stage, with a series of other moveable units that help to change locales. Using a palette of earth tones, pale blues, and grey, black, white, the costumes authentically recreate the dress of the Russian sthetl. Nate Putnam's sound design effectively balances the large cast and creates a warm vocal/orchestral texture. And the appropriately outlandish effects used for Tevye's dream create a moment of comic relief.

Bottle Dancers

MSMT has once again cast from great riches of talent - both seasoned Broadway performers and young non-Equity professionals. In the central roles of Tevye and Golde, Bill Nolte and Susan Cella bring not only star quality, but also deep sense of identification and a distinctive measure of freshness to their portrayals. Nolte's Tevye is a towering Everyman- philosophic and grumbling, foolish and wise, disarmingly ironic and endearing, hen-pecked and blustering, bewildered by the march of events and the erosion of tradition. His is a gentler, even wearier Tevye with a subtler sense of self-deprecating humor and a deeper vulnerability than some, and he is an actor who can convey a universe in the expression in his eyes and by his plastic physicality. Moreover, he is a consummate singer, shaping the variously styled songs of the role with a firm sense of style, musicality, and attention to text. "Tradition" is bold and rich in tone; "If I Were a Rich Man" an irresistible daydream; "Sabbath Prayer" demonstrates cantorial beauty; "Chavele" a poignant art song. Cella's Golde complements him perfectly - a strong-willed, blunt, woman, whose tough exterior is a façade for the huge heart within. With dry wit, sharp tongue, and a dignified reserve, she makes Golde a potent symbol of survival. Their moving Act II duet, "Do You Love Me?" is one of the evening's highlights,

The honey-voiced trio of Tevye's elder daughters captures the simplicity and strength of each of the girls. Rachel Rhodes-Devey is a determined, assertiveTzeitel; Siri Howard is a bright-eyed, idealistic Hodel, and Lexi Rabadi is a heart wrenching Chava. As their suitors, Aaron Galligan-Stierle gives the shy tailor Motel great reserves of inner strength and boyish enthusiasm, and he delivers a winning account of "Miracles of Miracles." Ben Michael conveys the revolutionary student Perchik's courage, vision, and ardor, and he once again demonstrates his polished vocal gifts in "the duet with Hodel, "Now I Have Everything." As Chava's Gentile suitor, Paul Louis Lessard imparts a quiet decency to Fyedka. With her customary panache, Charis Leos creates a feisty Yenta, relying on a keen sense of comic time and a proportion that avoids caricature and taps into the amusing yet endearing qualities of this archetypal character. As Lazar Wolf, Erick Devine makes a worthy foil for Tevye, and he, too, contributes a commanding voice and stage presence. Mike Backes plays the quasi-fascist Constable with a dangerous mixture of smug bonhommie and bullying.

Lexi Rabadi, Rachel Rhodes-Devey, Siri Howard

Each of the large supporting cast creates richly nuanced characterizations - sometimes more than one - of Anatevka's villagers and display their bona fide triple threat skills, especially in such rousing group numbers as "To Life" and the wedding scene. Special mention to the quartet of Bottle Dancers (Philip Colgan, Giovanni Di Gabriele, Alex Drost, and Kyle Laing] and to the Russian solders (Marty Lauter, Connor Wince, Di Gabriele - who has a flashy tenor vocalise that momentarily stops the show- and Lessard] for their thrilling dance performances in "L'Chaim." Other notable features include Berkely Jones as wily Grandma Tzeitel, Haley Ostir as a menacing Frumah Sarah, Raymond Marc Dumont as the persistent beggar Nachum, Bev Appleton as the mild-mannered Rabbi, Matty Rickard his officious son, and, Peter Simon Hilton as Avram the bookseller, Madeleine Vaillancourt and Zoe DInnerstein as the two youngest Tevye daughters. Rounding out the excellent ensemble with more worthy performances are Birdie Newman Katz (Mirala), Rachel Grindle (Bluma), Emily Davis (Sima), Megan Flynn (Anya), Heather Morgan (Sarah), Justin De Paris (Yussel), and Andy Dolci and Eli Maynard (Cheder Boys).

MSMT's Fiddler on the Roof is as fine a production as you will experience anywhere in the world of professional theatre. With the show running successfully in revival on Broadway and with a legacy of so many iconic productions and performers, this new production not only holds its own, but also distinguishes itself for its honesty, its humor, its pathos, and in the way it takes hold of your heart right from the beginning and holds onto it to the final curtain. There is something distinctively unique and original - and, indeed, memorable - at play here. It is a tribute to LaRosa, to MSMT's entire creative team, cast, crew, and to the leadership team of Curt Dale Clark and Stephanie Dupal that this amazing regional company has been able to scale yet another artistic height this season!

Photos courtesy MSMT, Ben McKenna, photographer

Fiddler on the Roof runs from July 20-August 6 at MSMT's Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769

From This Author - Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Born and raised in the metropolitan New York area, Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold took her degrees at Sarah Lawrence College and Fairleigh Dickinson University. She began her career as a teacher... (read more about this author)

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