BWW Review: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Dr. Phillips Center
With apologies to my beloved Bea Arthur and the rest of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF's incredible original cast, I gotta say: the show's 2015 Broadway revival might have been even better.
The good news: that same production is on tour this year, most recently at Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center, meaning more people get to see it. And all things considered, it's pretty darn good.
The bad news: it's a non-Equity production, which means it isn't quite as good as it could be. But more on that in a minute.
FIDDLER is the tale of Tevye and his five daughters, who he hopes will marry in the arranged tradition of their Jewish community in oppressive Imperial Russia.
Yente the village matchmaker has chosen a very wealthy prospect (an old man named Lazar Wolf) for Tevye's first daughter, Tzeitel. But Tzeitel wants to marry for love, and so do the daughters behind her.
Theirs is a central human dilemma: how to reconcile the desire for happiness with a belief system that says happiness is not the ultimate goal?
It's a bright story that grows darker, but at the same time, it brims with life, love, and exquisitely clever songwriting. The 2015 revival adds an intriguing modern-day bookend that really brings the heavy themes home, and that's carried over here.
The Production on Tour
In this current production, one never tires of admiring the lighting. Donald Holder, who lit the Broadway revival and returns for the tour, dazzles. So do set designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Catherine Zuber, both from the Broadway revival too. Together with returning director Bartlett Sher, they make this what it was on Broadway: a gorgeous staging that marries stunning stagecraft with complex and rewarding material.
(Notably, while the show doesn't get the Actors' Equity seal, its director, choreographer, designers, scenic artists, and backstage crew are members of their corresponding unions.)
The Cast on Tour
Paul Morland makes for a mighty fine Fiddler, his robe an eye-popping purple, his shadowy countenance serving as silent judge - an omniscient harbinger of shaky times ahead.
I was also impressed by Ryne Narecchia's turn as Perchik. You can tell that he really understands the youthful drive for justice that makes Perchik a kind of tragic hero. Mel Weyn, Ruthy Froch, and Natalie Powers are all quite good as the three eldest daughters, and even though I'm talking about them collectively here, they each play their character distinctively.
For that matter, everyone here is a fine dramatic actor. But when it comes to the singing... well, I'm not sure the producers are quite the matchmakers that Yente is. Or, given the kind of guy she found for Tzeitel, maybe they are.
Case in point: Yehezkel Lazarov, our lead.
Not for nothing, I'm used to a Tevye with a bigger belly, or at least a bigger frame. Zero Mostel's "deedle daidle dums" seemed to gurgle out of his gut with an organic and grandfatherish giddyiness. Ditto Danny Burstein's and Chaim Topol's.
Lazarov, best known as a hunky Israeli television and film star, is funny and emotive. Were this a straight play, he'd be remarkable. But this is a musical, and he lacks the vocal range and breath support of Tevyes past. Either that, or his thinner singing is an interpretive choice. But when the same observation applies to so much of the principal cast, one can't help but look to the casting director or - more appropriately, I suspect - to the production company itself. (Casting director Jason Styres has a healthy résumé, so I'm reluctant to fault him alone.)
They all pass muster. The vocals are consistently good enough. But there wasn't a single instance where I thought, "That's the best that's ever been" or even "this is great."
I will say this for the touring company of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, though: the dancing is to die for. Unfairly, FIDDLER isn't always included in conversations about the all-time great dance musicals. But the choreography is wonderful and unique. Jerome Robbins' bottle dance sequence is a marvel (carried over here from the original production), and I've twice been won over by Hofesh Shechter's new choreography for the revival (recreated on tour by Christopher Evans). It's worth seeing for that reason alone.
The Non-Equity Issue
The tour is non-Equity and comes to us from NETworks Presentations, perhaps best known for turning Disney's Beauty and the Beast into a lower-budget crowd pleaser on tour.
Granted, it's not unheard of for an age-old show like FIDDLER to hit the road as a non-union show, but given the recent Broadway revival's acclaim and success, it's surprising to see it tour outside of Equity so soon.
Mind you, there's plenty of non-Equity talent in this world. Local theaters in our own community prove that every week. And non-Equity shows give up-and-coming actors a chance to show their stuff.
But when major Broadway shows tour as non-union productions, there's a reason: to save money. And with that goal comes, generally speaking, slightly lower standards (at least from the producers' point of view.) Certainly, that has been NETworks' reputation for years.
That might be fine were it more widely advertised, but theatre goers show up to places like Dr. Phillips Center thinking they're getting a "direct from Broadway"-caliber production. After all, they pay just as much for a ticket here as they would in New York, if not more. (Thanks to Times Square's TKTS, I got a box seat to FIDDLER on Broadway for about the cost of a balcony seat on tour.)
It's probably fair to say that non-union productions like NETworks' have largely been responsible for the old "it was better on Broadway" stigma of national touring productions - a stigma that the last decade's worth of bigger-and-better Broadway tours have helped to sponge away.
Browsing through the program (not a Playbill, Dr. Phillips Center sadly having foregone those this year), one sees that there isn't the same depth of Broadway experience that one might normally find in a fresh-off-Broadway touring cast. Had this been an Equity production, that would be different - and the singing might have been better across the board.
Still, the traveling FIDDLER fares better than one might expect from NETworks. (And a whole lot better than Beauty and the Beast the last time it came through town.)
In the end, for me, the current national tour is something of a Lazar Wolf: sure, it makes fiscal sense, but I'm just not in love with it.
Still, I'd recommend this run to anyone who's never seen FIDDLER ON THE ROOF before. As written by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, it is one of the all-time great stage shows. Everyone should see it, and it might not look this good again. Besides, everything looks better at Dr. Phillips Center, one of the prettiest venues anywhere.
To purchase tickets or learn more about the current 2018-2019 Broadway in Orlando season or the upcoming 2019-2020 season, visit the Dr. Phillips Center website. To find out where FIDDLER is headed next, visit the national tour's website.
What do you think of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF's national tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: Fiddler on the Roof, 2018-2019