Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review of "Fiddler on the Roof" - Goodspeed Opera House

When the Goodspeed Opera House announced Fiddler on the Roof as one of their 2013-2014 productions, I groaned.  Over its 50 year lifespan I have seen the musical numerous times—from high school theatrics to runs on Broadway—and, honestly, I was not excited about revisiting this warhorse of a show. 

My trepidation, however, was unfounded mainly because this version comes across as a unified whole.  In past productions Tevye, the center of the story, has been played by larger then life actors, most famously by Zero Mostel in the original Broadway musical.  Here, Adam Heller, passionate and astute, blends in more with the other cast members.  This is not to diminish his interpretation or suggest the role is diluted or not even the focal point, but that his portrayal allows for the richness of the secondary roles to be realized.

For audience members not familiar with the show, which is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the setting is the small Russian village of Anatevka, circa 1905.  We are introduced to the inhabitants, their daily lives, and struggles.  The central focus is on Tevye, the milkman; his wife, Golde; and their five daughters.  They, like the other villagers, are experiencing sweeping changes to the traditional way of life, both at home and within the country. 

I have not seen a production of Fiddler for many years.  As I watched the action unfold on stage I couldn’t keep from thinking how relevant the musical is for today’s audiences, how timeless and germane the themes and value are in our present day society.  Our family dynamics, as in the early part of the 20th century, are topsy turvey.  Religious conflict is prevalent over so much of the world and has created such upheaval that whole villages have been forced to abandon their cherished lands.  The parallels are stark and wholly pertinent for today.

When talking about the attributes of Fiddler on the Roof one must start with the score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.  Oy, what a grouping of songs—“Tradition,” “ Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “To Life” –and those are just within the first five songs of the show.  The numbers vary from the very lively to the heartfelt to the forlon.  As the saying goes, “They don’t write them like that anymore.”

The book by Joseph Stein has richly defined characters and a seemingly simple plot that uses the story of Tevye, his family, and the denizens of Anatevka to explore the more broad-based themes discussed earlier. 

The large cast, led by Adam Heller as Tevye, is superb.  Commanding and charismatic, Heller doesn’t overwhelm as the father bewildered by the changes swirling around him.  He is the lead, but more ingrained into the greater whole.  The supporting members of the troupe are equally engaging.  Two that deserve special notice are Barrie Kreinik as the eldest daughter Tzeitel and Lori Wilner as Tevye’s wife Golde.  Both are feisty and, in different ways, impassioned by their beliefs and ideas.

Parker Esse has lovingly and expertly recreated the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.  The dances are full of energy and fervor as they envelope the small Goodspeed stage.

Director Rob Ruggiero once again exhibits why he is one of the best musical theater directors around.  He has molded the sizable group of actors into a cohesive body, allowing the ebb and flow of the work to appear natural.  Whether in the more lively scenes, such as the opening’s “Tradition,” or the surreal dream sequence near the end of Act I, or in such poignant moments as in Tevye’s wistful query of “Do You Love Me?” Ruggiero demonstrates his full mastery of the production.

Fiddler on the Roof, a classic, beautifully mounted, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 12th.

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