BWW Review: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Shea's Buffalo Theatre
Jewish oppression, immigrant families struggling to keep together, and an exodus of foreigners fleeing to America for a better life. Topics ripped from headlines of CNN are also the basis for the classic 1964 musical comedy FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The record breaking musical is as relevant today as ever, and the National Tour settled into Shea's Buffalo Theatre last night after it's launch in Syracuse, NY two weeks ago.
Few musicals have touched so many lives over the years as FIDDLER has. The songs are a virtual hit parade including "If I Were a Rich Man," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," and "Tradition." The music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick are ingrained into the American culture. The book by Joseph Stein brilliantly tells of the story of a poor Jew and his family of five daughters in The Town of Anatevka. The elders cling to tradition while the children yearn for a better life, breaking free of customs and religion. Stein has created an everyman's character in Tevye, the poor father who has daily conversations with God, but often misquotes the Bible to fit his own thoughts and desires.
This tour is based on the 2015 revival by powerhouse Broadway director Bartlett Sher, who has helmed such hit revivals as THE KING AND I and SOUTH PACIFIC. Sher has re-examined the production and placed in a more realistic sparse setting. In his interpretation, we meet Tevye in present day clothing on a platform of the Anatevka train station reading the story of a fiddler on the roof. As the fiddler starts playing, Tevye changes clothes and becomes the beloved milkman in a 1905 Russian settlement.
Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov has been tapped as our Tevye. He brings an understated take on the role that morphs slowly through the evening. His is not one full of comedy and bravado from the outset, but rather a weary laborer who loves his family, but is resigned to his own station in life. Lazarov finds subtle comedy without mugging, and those expecting a larger than life Zero Mostel or Topol may take some time getting accustomed to Lazarov's characterization.
His strong and resilient wife Golde is played by Maite Uzal, but one wished for more of a comedic edge to her sternness and bellowing. Not until the her third daughter leaves the home do we see any sense of heart to her character. Unfortunately Carol Beaugard is miscast as the Yente, the matchmaker. Her juicy part epitomizes the Jewish grandmother, by Beaugard's monotone reading of the role was downright flat.
The production shines most in it's choreography by Hoefsh Shechter, recreated by Christopher Evans. The frenetic dancing is joyous from the outset, all with a nod to the original Broadway production's choreography by Jerome Robbins. Lighting designer Donald Holder is responsible for some striking visuals, against the sparse settings of Michael Yeargan. Mr. Holder creates stunning tableaus and backlighting, most impressive during the Jews exodus from their homeland.
The pinnacle of the evening appears during "Tevye's Dream," where he must fake a nightmare that is re-enacted on stage. Here we find the perfect amalgam of comedy and musical story telling as Tevye convinces his wife that the dead have come back to life to tell them that they must make a different choice for their first daughter's new husband. The ghost Fruma- Sarah literally is the height of the entire stage, and Olivia Gjurich sings with the strongest voice in the entire cast. She is surrounding by surreal ghostly characters, hilariously misproportioned in costumes by Catherine Zuber.
Where the production falters is mostly in it's casting. This Non-Equity tour by NETworks unfortunately elucidates the talent for this caliber of a National tour. The young lovers may well be on their ways to burgeoning careers, but their singing was tentative and the ensemble singing was often weak, most notably during "Sabbath Prayer." In addition, it is just poor casting to have two women cross dress as men to flesh out the male ensemble numbers, ala Yentl. These kind of practices should be left to community theatres.
Nevertheless, this ground breaking musical that tackles the tough subjects of religion and ethnic stereotypes deserves to be seen by today's audiences. The end product, while not always up to par, is still full of heart and it's messages continue to hit home in 2018.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF runs through Sunday November 5, 2018 at Shea's Buffalo Theatre. Contact sheas.org for more information.