Review: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF IN CONCERT Breathes Life into an Old Favorite at Heinz Hall

The Pittsburgh Symphony partners with Pittsburgh CLO for this fantastic concert experience

By: Feb. 26, 2024
Review: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF IN CONCERT Breathes Life into an Old Favorite at Heinz Hall
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If you were a movie or musical fan during the VHS era, you likely remember Fiddler on the Roof as one of those unwieldy three-hour films that require two different cassette tapes to watch in full, like Titanic. There's no denying Norman Jewison's epic period piece, based on the musical by Bock and Harnick, is a classic, but it's also a bear thanks to its extreme length. Even onstage, the show tends to run close to three hours (three enjoyable hours, usually). Then again, the stage show lacks the incredibly sumptuous orchestrations of John Williams, including the now-famous violin solos added for virtuoso Isaac Stern. At last, the Pittsburgh CLO, in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the PNC Pops program, have bridged the gap: a two-hour streamlined "staged concert" production of Fiddler on the Roof, with the John Williams orchestrations performed by a full symphony orchestra.

The playing space is small, essentially a shallow runway in front of the orchestra. The set is minimal, made up of a cart, a few tables and benches, and a mostly-mimed set of props. Despite these limitations, director/choreographer Gustavo Zajac brings the show to life (pun intended), occasionally referencing but rarely recreating the famous Jerome Robbins staging. You'll see the classic Fiddler touches like Tevye's fist-and-belly-shaking dance, or the entire village of Anatevka walking in a hora-style processional, but this isn't a replica production. Rather, this is a rough and tumble, simply and honestly staged portrayal of the classic tale.

Is there a better role in musical theatre for a basso profundo than Tevye? And is there a greater basso profundo in musical theatre than Shuler Hensley? The veteran of Broadway and the West End may be best known for playing hulking tough guys, but he mixes that innate sense of menace with a gentle vulnerability and wry sense of humor, making Tevye into a real embodiment of the working man. This isn't the "old man Tevye" that has become all too common since Topol toured into his twilight years- Hensley's Tevye may have a soft heart, but there's no doubt he can pull the milk cart or fight the Russian occupiers if he has to. When Hensley gets to stretch out his rich, deep voice on Tevye's songs, numbers like "If I Were a Rich Man" grow from sighs and mutters into a genuine bellow to the heavens.

Anne L. Nathan, late of Funny Girl, gets and definitely earns above-title billing with her warm and witty Golde. She and Hensley have great chemistry and wonderful comic timing, bouncing their retorts and zingers off each other with heat but also genuine warmth and affection. I don't think I've ever seen a performance of their duet "Do You Love Me" with so much good humor in it. Another unexpected comic gem is Justin Fortunato, who finds unexpected humor in the straight-man role of Lazar Wolfe. Rather than the standard cantankerous old goat, Fortunato embodies Lazar as a sort of wealthy local loser, geninely moony over a younger woman in a way that's less problematic than simply unfortunate. Many of the other seriocomic local roles are played by additional Pittsburgh regulars, such as Allan Snyder as the Rabbi, Brady Patsy as the innkeeper, Benjamin Kent Pimental as the beggar and Rob Jessup as the constable. Though Fiddler is weighted heavily towards the men, Stephanie Maloney's chatty but hyper-efficient Yente nearly steals the show with her two comic scenes at the two ends of the show.

Also worth mention in this collaboratory project are two additional guest groups: the youth roles have been cast primarily from Carnegie Mellon students, and the wedding dancers are played by Pittsburgh's Tamburitzans, one of the longest-running folk dance productions in America. There's a lot to be said for knowing when to let real dancers dance, and I've never seen a performance of the Wedding Dance or the famous bottle routine performed both with such skill and with such high spirits; these guys are professionals. 

Under the baton of music director Andy Einhorn, the orchestra was in fine form, especially violin soloist Jeremy Black. (In the stage show, the Fiddler only appears at the beginning and the end as a visual metaphor, while in the film, and the symphonic concert, he is a constant presence.) It's shocking to me how little-performed the symphonic Fiddler is, especially with its ties to America's greatest film composer and his rise to fame. I can't wait to see what the CLO/Symphony collaboration produces next, but I also can't wait to see if Pittsburgh's showcase will lead other cities to bring out these arrangements in the same way. They're far too good to just gather dust.