Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, based on Sholem Aleichem's stories. Directed by Mark Hardy. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"So why should I suffer?"
A beggar asks a question at the beginning of the show, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, which, for me, begins the saga of the Jewish families in eastern Russia at the turn of the last century and their eventual migration to America and Palestine. It is a question thast sums up the attitude of Tevya, the Dairyman, father of five daughters, husband of the shrewish Golde, lamenter to his God of his lot. "So why should I suffer?" the beggar asks of a man who has cut his alms in half one week. "You had a bad week. . ." he says, "so why should I suffer?" For me this question has always been paramount. Most productions I've seen of this show have never answered that question, but now, on stage at the MacHaydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, I have an answer.
Director Mark Hardy has brought new insights to the world of Tevya and his family. He has done it two ways. First he has used the talents of a younger man in the role of Tevya, Richard Koons, and he has allowed the sensitivity of this character to emerge rather than the bluster which most interpreters of the part have brought. Ever since Zero Mostel, who originated the role and turned me off, most actors have followed his bigger-than-life, sad clown version of Sholem Aleichem's put-upon hero that Mostel created under the direction of Jerome Robbins, himself a bigger-than-life egoist. Koons does not take that approach. Instead, he has given us a quiet, wholesome man, angry about his lot, but accepting of his place on earth. He shows the inner man as often as he presents the outer man. He is the center of his universe without the egoistic bluster, the bad behavior. For the first time I found myself truly moved by the things that happen to him, around him, through him. I have wanted this portrayal since the show first appeared back in my youth. Koons and Hardy have given me the man I read about in the stories. Now the show makes sense to me.
Monica M. Wemitt, likewise, has tenderized Golde to the point where she is no longer a "type" of person, but a real person instead. When she and Koons finally come to the song "Do I Love You?" it is a moment that these two people have waited for and not just the light comic relief that is usually presented at this point in the show. The tenderness that emerges out of the simplicity of the music here is so very memorable that I predict audiences will dream of it for a long time after they hear it.
The three elder daughters are played with a genuineness, rather than an ingenue-ness, that again makes them more real and honest than usual, although I must admit that these characters are normally the easiest to understand. Tzeitel, the oldest girl, is given a lovely reading by Sarah Talbot. Her sister Hodel, the most traditional of daughters, is played wonderfully by Gina Velez. Avery Bryce Epstein plays Chava, the intellectual, with clarity and strength. Her final scenes are so emotionally moving.
Their three swains are executed by three very good actors. Motel, the tailor is was delicately created by Ben Darragh. Perchik, the revolutionary was very nicely brought to life by Eric Chambliss. Fyedka, the soldier is quite charming as played by Griffith Whitehurst. The most interesting man, for two scenes, however, is the butcher, Lazar Wolfe, safe in the talented hands of Dan Hasty.
Carol Charniga is a bit too traditional as Yente, the matchmaker, but she still moved me with her farewell in the second act.
Choreographer Dewayne Barrett, trapped by the images created by Jerome Robbins, moved this large company through the theater with dances and poses and classic routines that astounded me. There were times when it seemed the building itself must be dancing. Josh D. Smith and his musical cohorts presented a wonderful sound throughout the show making this one of the finest musical evenings ever at the MacHaydn.
This brings me to the best change ever in this show. Hardy has utilized the talents of the fiddler, normally only seen in the opening and closing of the show, to bridge scene to scene, moment to moment, heaven to hell. Elliot Lane, as the Fiddler, proved himself to be one of the finest talents on a stage filled with talent. His look, his musical abilities, his sensitivity to Tevya and his plight, all together created a unity that this show has always lacked for me. If there are awards for local productions, and I do believe there are, the tributes to him and the director for using him in this way should be manifold.
I have often suggested that people should see "Fiddler on the Roof" with reservations. This time I urge people to make reservations now for this edition of the show. Finally, I am glad to have seen what I have seen.
Richard Koons, Gina Velez, Ben Darragh, Emily Allen, Sarah Talbot, Riley Werner, Avery Bryce Epstein; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Carol Charniga, Monica M. Wemitt; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Elliot Lane as the Fiddler; photo: Jesse DeGroodt
Fiddler on the Roof runs through June 29 at the MacHaydn Theatre located at 1925 Route 203 in Chatham, New York. For tickets and information call 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.machaydntheatre.org.