BWW Review: Belmont University Musical Theatre's Remarkably Robust FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
OMore than 50 years after its Broadway debut, Fiddler on the Roof (the first show in history to run for more than 3,000 performances on the Great White Way) remains a popular choice among theater companies, whether amateur or professional, academic or commercial. And it's easy to understand why: the score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is memorable and melodic, the book by Joseph Stein (based upon the stories of Sholem Aleichem) is movingly sentimental and the characters are iconic and accessibl
Thus, it should come as absolutely no surprise that the current production onstage at Massey Performing Arts Center in Nashville, courtesy of the astonishing Belmont University Musical Theatre program, is possibly as good - or even better than - any show we've seen put on over the years by the venerated musical theater training school. In fact, BUMT has produced so many remarkable performers over the years that we may all rest assured that musical theater in America (if not the world) will continue to grow and prosper, thanks to the continued supply of new blood from Belmont.
Case in point: Gabe Hoyer, the young actor whose performance of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof is nothing short of awe-inspiring. He is so good that - even after almost 48 hours since seeing his remarkably nuanced and completely focused performance in the role - we simply cannot shake the impact of his performance, nor those of the cadre of young actors who bring the story to life with such immense commitment that Fiddler on the Roof seems somehow fresh and electrifyingly contemporary despite its vintage.
Credit for the production's success is due in large part to its director, David Shamburger, who delivers the story in such a spellbinding and engaging way that its more than three hours playing time seems to speed along at a cinematic clip, leaving one to scratch his head as he realizes just how much time has transpired away from the rigors of the real world. While experiencing life with the denizens of Anatevka, a slowly evolving village in Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century, audiences can become so enraptured by the events that time stands still - thanks to the eloquent storytelling and astonishing character development that are among the show's most readily discernible attributes.
Rather than detracting from the storytelling aspects of Fiddler, Shamburger's brisk staging of the iconic musical instead ensures its emotional impact resonates more deeply, lending a contemporary feel to a show that's been a part of the musical theater vernacular for more than a half century. Combine the rich tradition of Fiddler's production history - there have been innumerable productions on every level of theater performance in 50 years - with the superb musical direction of Jo Lynn Burks, who with her orchestra provides stunning accompaniment for the tale with their splendid musicianship, and add the startling choreography of Anna Perry and the commitment of the cast and you have a production that is perhaps more effective than you might imagine.
Perry's robust choreography could very possibly be the finest work we've seen on a local stage in the 30-some years we've been writing about theater in these parts. Performed with passion by the company of young actors assembled for this particular staging, Perry's choreography is breathlessly, stirringly emphatic. It's almost as if Fiddler on the Roof has been reconceived - even if you know for certain it hasn't because of the cavalcade of past productions that are sure to flood your mind as you witness the BUMT iteration for the very first time.
But back to Gabe Hoyer and his comrades: Despite their relative youth, they are able to create a world in Anatevka beyond their years and experience. The young actors manage to artfully transform into the much older characters they play with much authenticity, allowing them to show off the training they've received from their professors at Belmont on the way to becoming the next generation of musical theater performers upon which their industry depends. The dedication to their craft is awe-inspiring, with Hoyer's starmaking performance only one among a bevy of such highlights to be found in this production.
Though slighter and younger than all the Tevyes we've seen before, Hoyer nonetheless creates such a vivid portrait of the financially impoverished dairyman (who is far richer in the things that make life worthwhile, truth be told) whose story is beloved by generations of theater aficionados. Hoyer's voice has a mature quality to it that is ideal for Tevye, while he possesses the requisite actor's bag of tricks to ensure a thoroughly believable character is borne from it. He is paired (at the performance reviewed; some of the women's roles are double-cast, thanks to the impressive wealth of talented females in the BUMT program) with the equally impressive Magdalene Hutchison as Tevye's long-suffering wife Golde, who ably plays the more mature woman with a graceful ease that belies her own youthfulness. Together, the onstage chemistry of the two blends beautifully and their scenes together fairly crackle with theatrical intensity and their duet to "Do You Love Me?" is sweetly touching.
As their three eldest daughters, Margaret Butler (as Tzeitel), Meredith Waggoner (Hodel) and Megan Arrington (Chava) are wonderfully cast and are given the opportunity to effectively put their own skills on full display. Each young actress if given her moment to shine in the spotlight (Caroline Morris and Cassidy Petersheim's lighting design is eye-poppingly gorgeous and evocative throughout the show) and each gives a finely tuned portrayal, spirited and heartfelt by turns. Their "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" number is among the finest in a show laden with outstanding musical numbers.
Austin Querns (as Motel, the tailor), Dylan Davis (Perchik, the student) and Holden Hanna (as Fyedka, the young Russian soldier) are excellent as the trio of suitors for Tevye's eldest daughters, with each actor displaying a wealth of charm and stage presence. Querns' Motel is engaging as the bumbling young man who finally finds his voice at the right moment (his "Miracle of Miracles" is terrific), while Davis finally has the chance to show his onstage mettle in a role that seems written for him, and Hanna's self-effacing performance is enormously effective during his limited time onstage.
Among Shamburger's impressive ensemble, Natalie Ragazzo is pitch-perfect as Yente, exemplifying my earlier statement about how effectively these young actors grow into their older characters. She demonstrates enormous control and a serious command of the stage in the process. Chase Tucker is impressive as Lazar Wolfe, the butcher who vies for Tzeitel's hand-in-marriage; associate choreographer Quintan Craig is notable as the town's innkeeper, but perhaps more noteworthy thanks to his superb dancing abilities; and Macy Medford very nearly steals the show as Grandma Tzeitel during Tevye's raucous dream sequence.
Riley Henderson is properly chilling as the dastardly constable who patrols the town with utter disdain for its Jewish citizens. Imari Thompson's glorious voice is heard all too briefly during his "To Life" solo and a plethora of Belmont musical theater once-and-future stars collectively create a memorable impression.
The production's fine production design ensures that scene transitions are effectively and quickly achieved - thanks to Mitch White, Gary Warrington and David Shamburger for that - and Ashley Wolfe's costumes clothe the characters in a way that makes the actors' transformation into their characters more easily achievable. And, worthy of note, is this: Thanks to Wolfe's choices, BUMT might consider doing Newsies in an upcoming season - most of the costume work has already been done! - and they are probably the only entity capable of pulling off that particularly challenging work with success...think about it...
Fiddler on the Roof. Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by David Shamburger. Musical direction by Jo Lynn Burks. Choreography by Anna Perry. Coordinator of musical theatre: Nancy Allen. Presented by Belmont University Musical Theatre. At Massey Performing Arts Center on the Belmont University campus, Nashville. Through November 12. For details, go to www.belmont.edu/music. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).