by Lynn on June 5, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ont. Until October 20. Book by Joseph Stein based on Tevye and his Daughters by Sholem Aleichem. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed and choreographed by Donna Feore. Originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Set by Allen Moyer. Costumes by Dana Osborne. Lighting by Michael Walton. Sound by Peter McBoyle. Fight direction by John Stead. Starring: Jacqueline French, Kate Hennig, Keely Hutton, Gabrielle Jones, Krista Leis Julie Stuart, Scott Wentworth.

Fiddler on the Roof is the beloved musical that opened on Broadway in 1964; based on Tevye and his Daughters by Sholem Aleichem; in which one of its songs—“Sunrise, Sunset” has been responsible for sending thousands of brides—Jewish and otherwise—down the aisle, usually to sniffling accompaniment.

We are in the town of Anatevka in Russia in 1905 Tevye is a humble milk man living in a world of women—he has one wife, Golda, and five daughters. His main solace is talking to God, perhaps because God doesn’t answer back as often as Golda and his daughters do. And Tevye believes in tradition. It’s what holds a family and a people together. There is a procedure for things and certainly when it comes to marriage. In that case the father finds a husband using a matchmaker, and he gives the permission to marry. But in the case of three of his daughters that’s not holding true. They want to marry whom they want when they want. This causes Tevye all sorts of “tsoris” (Yiddish for “trouble”, “aggravation.”). The peaceful existence in the village is jeopardized when the local Russian police tell Tevye that there will be a little ‘dust up’ just to show the police are doing their jobs. The people learn soon enough the village will be disbanded and its inhabitants forced to leave. Tevye’s conversations with God ramp up.

Why is Fiddler on the Roof so beloved? Why does it rank as one of the all time successful Broadway musicals? It’s been revived endlessly and is popular even in high schools and community theatres.  What is so special about it?

Simple. It’s about families and almost everybody has one and can identify with someone in the story. It’s about tradition and trying desperately to hold on to it almost at all cost, but knowing when traditions have to be let go when moving forward, trying not to look back. And most important, it’s about love; love of parents for their children; husbands and wives for each other; and friends for friends. The stories are timeless.

Jerry Bock’s score is beautiful and touches the heart.  Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics fit perfectly and list those traditions that are so important; and talk of love and marriage from various perspectives; and talk of dreaming to be rich; dreaming to marry the girl/boy in question; questions of do you love me? Of the 22 musical numbers there are at least10 hit tunes. That’s astonishing.

Does this Stratford production do this musical justice? Definitely. Director Donna Feore has filled her vibrant production with respect, life and passion. The title of the show comes from a painting of a fiddler by Marc Chagall. Taking a cue from Chagall, set designer Allen Moyer, has a halo of sorts of Chagall-like characters placed around a curve above the stage—suggesting characters dancing in space. His design is simple and clearly depicts the humble, poor but full lives of the good people of Anatevka.

The original director and choreographer of the Broadway production was Jerome Robbins. And even though he died years ago he has a grip on his creations even from the grave. You cannot do a Jerome Robbins musical without adhering exactly to the Jerome Robbins choreography according to the dictates of his estate. Donna Feore has been true to Robbins’ rousing choreography but she goes further than that and has her gifted company of dancers and actors instil the passion and zest for life of all of them into the show. If anything I get the sense those dancers are dancing for their characters’ lives. The result is thrilling.

And it’s great fun seeing how perceptive and theatrically savvy Robbins was in knowing how to build a scene with music and movement, so that by the end of it the audience has no choice but to applaud. Take the famous bottle dance during the wedding of one of Tevye’s daughters. A group of wedding guests balances a bottle on top of their hats. Then sink down on their knees and to a downbeat in the music, flip one leg straight out to the side and then drag their bodies forward with the outstretched foot. Then the other leg is flipped out with the foot dragging the body after. Again to the downbeat, as the music speeds up a bit as the dancers still balancing the bottles, move with grace to the music. Behind them is a crowd of guests who clap and end up cheering to the beat of the music. The audience is intoxicated and caught up in it. Resistance is futile. Instant applause.

The cast is terrific. Leading the way is Scott Wentworth as Tevye. Mr. Wentworth is not physically imposing but his presence certainly is. His Tevye is tired—the horse is lame and he has to pull the milk cart himself. He moves slowly. His conversations with God are flippant and funny. He has a strong singing voice and a tenderness with his children that is heart-squeezing. He is intimidated by Golda and that’s rather sweet.  And when Tevye is faced with the local Russian police officer he withers. His body sinks into itself slightly and he stoops, head down. A stunning bit of physical business that speaks volumes.

As Golda, the matriarch of the family, Kate Hennig is a whirlwind. While Tevye has only a cart to pull, Golda has a house to run, a husband to boss and five daughters to order around all in the name of efficiency and getting things done on time. She has a beautiful sense of timing; a lovely voice and a tenderness that peeks out from the abruptness that is disarming.

The three older daughters: Tzeitel (Jennifer Stewart), Hodel, (Jacqueline French), Chava (Keely Hutton), all have spunk, confidence, and sing beautifully.

Fiddler on the Roof is as familiar as an old friend. And as captivating as if meeting for the first time.

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 20

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