Paterson – Film Review

Paterson is the largest city in New Jersey. As early as the nineteenth century, it was always a melting pot of cultures. That rich, ethnic quality that was there from the beginning continues today. Paterson, with its large, Hispanic community, has the second-largest Muslin population in the country. It’s also the name of the new, deliberately slow-paced drama written and directed by Jim Jarmusch where it’s principle character is also called Paterson.

Known only by the one name, Paterson (Adam Driver) is a New Jersey bus driver. With just a few minor exceptions, like the bus route he drives daily, the pattern of Paterson’s life is pretty much the same, week in, week out. Though we never know much of his background, there are a couple of giveaways sitting on the shelves of his home. One; he probably likes buses – there are two vintage bus models, presumably from childhood, paraded on the bedroom shelf, and two; from the framed picture we see of him in his uniform, Paterson is a Marine vet. But if there are no other revealing clues of Paterson’s life to be seen, the one thing we know for certain about the New Jersey bus driver is that he loves to wrote poetry.

His poems are personal. His pleasant young wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) likes them and urges him to make copies, perhaps even present them for publication. He says he’ll do it for her. At the very least, he’ll make copies, maybe at the weekend, but as for others reading them, Paterson is not so sure. They’re not meant for others. They’re private, like a diary of daily thoughts and observances, meant for no one else except mainly himself.

Beginning with Monday morning, Paterson wakes up at the same time as he usually does, around 6:12 am, or thereabouts. He dresses, eats his bowl of Cheerios, picks up his lunchbox, and goes to work. As he walks, he begins to form a poem in his head; a love poem, where, on this particularly Monday, the thoughts and observations of an Ohio Blue Tip matchbox he studied earlier at the breakfast table lead to a conclusion of romantic love. “We have plenty of matches in our home,” he begins. “We keep them on hand always.”

During breaks throughout the day, he writes the poems in a private notebook, and everything around him inspires. He listens to the conversations of the passengers on his bus while observing their looks and appearances. He makes note of the people on the street as his bus passes by. And when he arrives home from work, he collects the mail while adjusting the positioning of the mailbox (for some reason – comically later revealed – the box always seems to be tilting by the end of the day), exchanges pleasantries with his wife, and finally takes Marvin the dog out for a walk where he makes an end-of-the-day pit-stop at a neighborhood bar for one single beer. “Right on time,” says bar owner Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley) as he pours Paterson his glass. It’s the kind of small, corner, neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name.

And so it goes. Tuesday is pretty much the same. As is Wednesday, though Thursday he wakes nearer to 6:30 am, and on Friday he almost oversleeps. Though it may seem mundane, there’s a continual sense of fascination watching Paterson go through his day. In his world, as a small as it is, each little change of routine or each new character we see, either on the street or in that neighborhood bar, becomes monumental.

When there’s an electrical fault in his bus and the passengers are forced to disembark, Paterson’s routine is disrupted, and when at the bar one evening, lovelorn Everett (William Jackson Harper) pulls a gun on the woman who refuses his continual advances, Paterson’s Marine instincts kick in and he overpowers the guy. But the climactic moment, one that ruins the end of a pleasant Saturday and throws Sunday into a day of sad, self-reflection, is one involving Marvin the dog and an all-important possession of Paterson’s he mistakenly leaves lying around.

It would be difficult to say for certain what Paterson is really about or who its intended audience might be. As with much of Jarmusch’s work, you draw from it what appeals to you; elements that you think you see or believe the film to be saying, then discuss the possibilities with friends after a viewing. Students of film, and movie buffs in general, may find it of interest and enjoy the after-film debate, but mainstream audiences will steer clear.

There’s an overall languid feel to the well-framed, neatly shot affair, courtesy of cinematographer Frederick Elmes, that has little to do with the movie making style of today. In his slow-paced, New Jersey world of daily observations, the character of Paterson could well be an extension of his creator, writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Paterson’s poetry is personal, as are Jarmusch’s films, plus in the same way that Jarmusch ignores present day tastes, the bus driver shuns modern day trappings such as laptops, and has no use for a cell phone. “The world worked fine before they even existed,” Paterson says at the bar one evening. Both Jarmusch and his fictional character exist at their own, slow pace. They take notes while observing others, but remain at a distance, never involved.

Or maybe just getting through the week is what it’s all about. When Paterson bumps into Everett in the street and they exchange a few words about that gun incident of the other night, Everett concludes with, “Always another day, right?” “So far,” responds Paterson. And they part, ready to face another Monday. And it will probably be just like the Monday before.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  115 Minutes    Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Illusionists – Live From Broadway; National Tour, ASU Gammage, Tempe

It began with a performance at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia in 2012. Since that spectacular opening, The Illusionists, a touring magic production consisting of seven spectacularly outstanding stage magicians, has thrilled millions around the world, which is surprising considering that up until that huge poster of oncoming productions appeared hanging near the ASU Gammage box-office area alongside other oncoming national tours, most ticket-holders had never heard of them.

The cast regularly changes, depending on the tour, and so does the name; or, at least, the subtitle. After that Australian opening, the show was called The Illusionists – Witness the Impossible, then later 1903: The Golden Age of Magic; Turn of the Century; 2.0, and now with the current Asia and North American tour; Live From Broadway.

Perhaps the best way to describe The Illusionists is to think of a Vegas style production with some Broadway sensibilities. The electronic music pulsates, the light show dazzles, the dancer/assistants attract – they’re like the leather-clad rock chicks of eighties heavy metal videos – and the tricks truly stun. If there’s anything you’ll be asking yourself at the conclusion of each individual act it’ll be, “How’d they do that?” It’s something you’ll be asking from the outset to the conclusion.

The cast are made up of seven highly skilled performers, each of whom have a comic-book moniker, something akin to a superhero, though with names like The Manipulator of The Trickster, they’re more like super-villains, particularly The Anti-Conjuror (Dan Sperry) whose gruesome facial appearance, plus the shock tactics of his act, would make him an ideal candidate for the Suicide Squad, particularly when part of his act includes inserting a coin into his eye – tested for authenticity by an understandably apprehensive member of the audience – only to have it later emerge from a self-inflicted gash in his arm.

In an auditorium as large as ASU Gammage, where the show is now playing until Sunday, January 22, there might be a justified concern that the subtleties of card tricks and slight-of-hand illusions would be lost to those in the back rows, or up in the balconies, but the show has you covered. A large screen hangs center upon which everything you see live below can be seen in close-up above on the screen. It helps a lot, particularly in one charming segment involving The Inventor (Kevin James), a little girl from the audience, and a floating paper rose. There’s also the fun of audience members seeing themselves when cameras turn, or when an unsuspecting patron is yanked from his or her seat to help out with an act, whether they want to help or not. Most of those involuntary volunteers tend to be near the front, but if you think you’re safe just because you’re somewhere seated in the middle of the house, think again.

Because of that televised screen, there are times when you might feel as though you’re watching the recording of a real television show. The camera often goes in for a sudden close-up, spotlights spin and hit the target, and the music creates a moment of sudden drama, echoing the sounds of a new-style game show like The Weakest Link or Who Wants To be A Millionaire.

In a show like The Illusionists, it would be unfair to talk of individual moments with any real detail; the overall fun of the piece is witnessing the illusions for yourself (it would be like giving away plot-spoilers in a show that has no plot), but each and everyone of the performances are truly remarkable. In addition to the already-mentioned The Inventor and The Anti-Conjuror, there’s also The Escapologist (Andrew Basso) who has a minute to escape a watery death, The Daredevil (Jonathan Goodwin) who lies on a bed of nails (consisting of one nail!), The Deductionist (Colin Cloud) who’ll be reading your mind, and The Manipulator (An Ha Lim) who remains silent throughout but dazzles with his continually fluid slight-of-hand card tricks.

Perhaps by the end of the first half there’ll be tendency to think, okay, I’ve seen enough, but stay; the second half is hardly more of the same. The illusions continue to dazzle, The Inventor charms once again with an eye-catching act consisting of snowflakes, while the whole show is held together by the continual appearance of The Trickster, a hugely entertaining Jeff Hobson who MC’s, interacts with the audience, and performs tricks of his own. With his ad-libs, his camp asides, and his neatly-coiffed hair, plus a reputation for being known as ‘the host of Las Vegas,’ he’s the magician’s answer to Liberace, and he’s very, very funny.

Pictures courtesy of Joan Marcus

Posted in Theatre

Camelot – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

When Lerner and Loewe’s fantasy musical Camelot first opened, reviews were mixed, audiences were initially indifferent, and the whole thing ran too long. In fact, during an out-of-town tryout, what was supposed to last two hours forty minutes ended up being four hours and thirty minutes. Drastic cuts were made; a few songs, good ones, were dropped; Lerner was hospitalized, and director Moss Hart suffered a heart attack. Considering the difficulties and the behind-the scenes dramas – Lerner’s wife left him – it’s amazing the show ever opened. But after much editing, Camelot was finally ready for Broadway. Surprisingly, reviews remained mixed.

Yet, since those problematic months, after the help of some national publicity on The Ed Sullivan Show, ticket sales suddenly boomed, the show won four Tony Awards, the cast album was a big seller, plus in 1967 a lavish but so-so movie was made. After a few revivals and several national tours – the last tour with Lou Diamond Phillips as King Arthur ran for a week in the valley at Gammage in 2008 – plus countless regional productions, Arizona Broadway Theatre begins the year in Peoria with a new, colorfully staged production of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, and what a handsome looking production it proves to be.

After an outstanding trumpet dominating Overture under Josh D. Smith’s musical direction, from the moment the curtain rises, Kara Thomson’s hugely effective scenic design, beautifully lit by Jesse Portillo, catches the eye from beginning to the end, opening with the sight of snow falling lightly over the grounds of the English countryside that we’ll get to know as Camelot. For followers of history, several have speculated that Camelot was probably in Cornwall, but considering there is no historical proof of there ever being a King Arthur or any Knights of the Round Table (despite the claims of a few amateur historians) it could really take place anywhere in England. Robin L. McGee’s excellent period costumes add to the overall effect of a fictional, historical past.

If you recall the Walt Disney animated feature, The Sword in the Stone, think of that as Camelot’s prequel. The early story of the boy Arthur and the magical legend of how he became King of England plus the story of Camelot both come from the same, sprawling T.H. White novel, The Once and Future King. Throughout the musical, the now adult Arthur (Matthew C. Thompson) continually refers to events that you may remember in that 1963 animated classic, including a well-told and impassioned account of how he took the sword from the stone as he relates the event to Guenevere (Stephanie Easterday).

Thompson possesses neither the robust power of Broadway’s original Arthur, Richard Burton, nor the overall presence of the film’s Arthur, Richard Harris, yet he’s closer in look and sound of what we think the real character would probably be, given what know of the boy Wart as described in the book and as he’s portrayed in the Disney feature. That boyish charm of a young man from humble, countryside beginnings who finds himself suddenly a king at such an early age is nicely captured by Thompson’s appearance and enthusiastic manner; he’s just as you would imagine Arthur would be, though given his background and early upbringing, he probably wouldn’t have sounded quite as posh.

Like the production itself, Easterday is a handsome looking Guenevere, or Genny as Arthur often calls her, with a singing voice to match, something that’s immediately evident from the opening notes of her character’s first song, The Simple Joys of Maidenhood. She’s less the somewhat sly, conniving Genny as the film’s Vanessa Redgrave played her and more in line with Broadway’s Julie Andrews, complete with a clipped, upper class English accent that sounds as though she might have been the privileged head-girl from either Oxford or Cambridge.

Completing the love triangle of leads is Jamie Parnell as the dutiful French knight, Lancelot. His powerful renditions of C’est Moi and If Ever I Would Leave You are quite superb. Those songs made a star out of Robert Goulet in 1960, and on the evidence of his Saturday evening performance and the enthusiastic reception of the audience, Parnell is equal to the task. With just a slight hint of French in his delivery, his Lancelot is both strong and honorable. He manages to underline the fact that though he falls for another man’s wife, what happens between Lancelot, Arthur, and Guenevere are no one’s fault; the affairs of the heart and the magnet pull of an attraction for another are too strong, even for a devout character like Lancelot.

Support is good throughout, particularly from Michael Weaver who doubles as a befuddled Merlin as he fades and loses his memory, and fun as the eccentric Pellinore played as if Robert Coote had returned to the stage; Renee Kathleen Koher, who also doubles, is in fine voice, here as Nimue and Morgan Le Fey; and solid work from the three knights, Sir Sagamore (Joe McHatten), Sir Lionel (Nicholas Kuhn) and Sir Dinadan (Steven Russell), though Russell’s attempt at speaking lines with a Scottish brogue proves more comical than probably intended; he fights a battle with Lancelot and his accent, and loses at both.

What’s obvious in Alan Jay Lerner’s script is that the problems of 1960 and all the changes and editing that were done to make it work still remain. The first half, full of great songs and set pieces, is surprisingly long, and the second half, though shorter, never fully satisfies. Neither does the closing moment that is intended to be inspirational but has never theatrically worked. The villainous character of Mordred takes center stage, and while Stephen Hohendorf makes the jealous, illegitimate child of Arthur effectively evil, by portraying the character as such a slimy, fey, brat, he oversteps into camp in a way the character was never meant to be.

But the strength of Camelot is and always will be the score. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the actors were cast for their singing voices first, such is the power and clarity of the cast – leads and support. Little wonder that the original cast album lasted 60 weeks in the album charts. Director James Rio juggles all the elements, marries them together, and delivers a hugely entertaining piece of musical theatre. The problems with Lerner’s book will always be there, but, with the exception of a few above-mentioned reservations, there is little wrong with ABT’s production.

Pictures by Scott Samplin

Posted in Theatre

Patriots Day – Film Review

It wouldn’t surprise if the first thing you thought when considering director Peter Berg’s new real-life action-drama Patriots Day was, they’ve made a movie already? The story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing remains so fresh in our minds, its details, still so clear, that questioning the speed with which the event has hit the screens is something almost everyone might be asking. And yet, despite the advanced concerns that the job could be rushed, that maybe it’ll wrap the flag a little too tightly around itself, or that the themes of patriotism flavored with anti-Muslim sentiment may overdo things, the end result is unexpectedly satisfying.

It has it flaws. In fact, there are a couple of major ones, but the ultimate strength of the piece is how Berg’s script (he co-wrote it with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer) treats the subject with respect; admirably, it does what it can to avoid crowd-cheering jingoism.

Considering how the real-life events of the bombing played out in the media – the day of the marathon, the release of the video surveillance pictures and the terrorist manhunt that followed – you’d think that watching Patriots Day would be more a case of going through the motions of things already well-known. After all, with such thorough coverage, the whole affair, from beginning to end, played out like a real-time thriller in our living rooms, right up until that final capture in the back yard of a Watertown resident. And yet, as with director Paul Greengrass and his re-telling of United 93, Bloody Sunday and Captain Phillips, witnessing those same events retold from within rather than simply observing on the nightly news creates a different sense of emotional involvement; you know what is to follow, you’re aware of how it’s all about to happen, and yet the heart beats faster while that mounting, white-knuckle sense of anxiety builds in the way only the art of film can achieve.

Berg’s frenzied, hand-held approach to filmmaking appears to have taken its cue from Greengrass. Like Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and now Patriots Day, by shooting real-life events with its jittery, fast-paced, rough-around-the-edge edits, he’s attempting to install that same sense of continual, naturalistic urgency; its the faux-documentary approach where the camera sweeps around, looking for its subject, while pieces of dialog are meant to be overheard rather than spoken directly. The chaos of action sequences benefits from the hand-held, but Berg shoots every scene that way, even the quiet ones.

The opening sequence of Boston Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) going about his business long before the story of the marathon bombing begins is shot in this fashion, as are the following scenes of busy, overlapping conversations with other police officers back at the station, and at home with his wife (Michelle Monaghan). The style feels false and does nothing other than bring attention to itself. Once the film takes off and the bombing and the subsequent urgency of the detective work follows, you disappear into the film and forget the twenty-five minutes of those earlier scenes, but while they’re playing out, other than the steadiness of the establishing shots, the overuse of the hand-held is nothing short of annoying.

The film’s biggest blot is the creation of the fictional Tommy Saunders. Knowing that Wahlberg’s character never existed even though he’s there, talking to all the real-life characters and shoe-horned in to always be at the center of every discovery, his continual presence becomes unintentionally humorous, despite Wahlberg’s earnest performance. He’s the Jack Bauer of Boston; he’s at the finish line yards from the bombing; he advises the FBI the positions of the street surveillance cameras as the Chechen brothers responsible for the terrorist act are discovered; he’s at the gas station when the owner of the carjacked Mercedes-Benz is found, cowering at a gas station, and he’s there in Watertown leading the police in the final shootout and subsequent capture. He’s everywhere. It’s as though some guy with a secret desire to be a hero and involved in the whole affair fantasized himself leading the charge at every turn; what we’re watching is his imagination.

Writer/director Berg (or, perhaps, studio insistence) thought it necessary to invent a single character that held things together and guided audiences to get through the myriad of events, but considering the film employs an intentionally realistic, documentary style, indulging in this character fiction really doesn’t work. Plus, it makes those earlier, introductory scenes of Detective Tommy Saunders on the job as false. The point is driven home even further when at the concluding moments, the real-life people involved, those we’ve seen convincingly portrayed by John Goodman, J. K. Simmons, Kevin Bacon, plus several of the actual bombing victims, all speak and give testimony, while the only one noticeably absent is Tommy Saunders. It actually feels odd.

But the film still works because the subject matter has such a strong, emotional core, and, as already mentioned above, despite those reservations of style and unnecessary fiction, Berg serves the overall events well. The moment the two pressure cooker bombs explode and their aftermath are shocking – Berg does well by never lingering on the carnage, even though glimpses of bloodied or dismembered limbs are in evidence – plus the anger you feel towards the brothers responsible and their abhorrent, twisted reasoning for doing what they did is unavoidable.

As for the city of Boston, even though the objections of city residents and town officials are well documented, by the fade-out, Berg’s film illustrates to the rest of us just how strong that sense of the city’s community pulling together really was and how this appalling event succeeded in making it even stronger. Boston had every right to object to the film’s making, particularly when the subject feels as though it was only a matter of months since it occurred, but the film is honorable; it’s actually saluting the city.

MPAA Rating: R    Length: 130 Minutes      Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

20th Century Women – Film Review

In 1999. when director/writer Mike Mills was only 33, his mother died of brain cancer. One week later, after forty-four years of marriage, his father came out as gay. He died five years later. It was Mills’ father’s story that became the basis of the 2010 comedy/drama with Christopher Plummer, Beginners, an entertainingly well constructed and critically well-received, fictional account of the real event. Now, six years later, Mills has turned to his mother to do the same.

20th Century Women is the story of Dorothea (Annette Benning), except there’s no actual story. It’s more a sequence of disjointed events, fragments of youthful memories as though Mills has flicked through the pages of his childhood diary, found something interesting, pondered upon it for a few moments, then turned the page to find the next thing upon which to ponder. Dorothea is a ditzy and somewhat whimsical free-spirit with a logic all of her own, and so is the film.

The setting is 1979, Santa Barbra, California, and single mom Dorothea is out shopping with her fifteen-year old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, a character presumably based on director Mills). Outside in the parking lot, Dorothea’s old Ford Galaxy is on fire. Once the firemen arrive and put the fire out, all that’s left of the vehicle is the burnt frame. Dorothea can’t understand why it would catch fire. Jamie has to remind his mom that it was a car that continually overheated and smelt of gas. He’s the logical one. She has no clue.

The film’s center revolves around Dorothea’s notion that she can’t raise her son by herself. It’s not that he needs a father-figure, it’s that he needs a few more authoritative and knowledgeable types around him. “He’s only got me,” Dorothea explains. “It’s not enough.” Believing that no matter how much you love your child you’re pretty much screwed, she turns to two other women for help, neither of whom are in any way qualified for the task.

One is Julie (Elle Fanning) Jamie’s close seventeen-year old friend, who plays therapy with him, teaches him how to walk a certain, casual way when he smokes, and sleeps with him at night; no sex, just the company. The other is Abbie (Greta Gerwig) Dorothea’s twenty-four year old lodger with health issues who cut her hair and dyed it red after seeing David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth. She relates the occasional words of Abbie-wisdom to the boy. “Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know it’s not going to be anything like that.” 

In the way that Mills used flashbacks to tell his father’s story, 20th Century Women jumps to and from a family timeline as the backstory to each character is introduced, stylishly using old black and white pictures, newsreels, and home movies to quickly bring things up to date. He even leaps forward to events that have yet to occur as if Dorothea’s voice-over is actually coming from beyond the grave. “I died in 1999,” she states and talks of how those in 1979 will never know of actor Ronald Reagan as President, HIV, the Internet, global warming and what it was like to prepare for Y2K.

There’s an overall, likable feel to the film’s rhythm that seems just as eccentric in tone as much as Dorothea’s likable character. Annette Benning brings the mother’s oddball sensitivities and general flakiness alive and makes her a character to warm to, even though, in reality, you should be annoyed; every time she’s there, which is most of the film, she elicits smiles. When a cop pulls her over for changing lanes at an intersection, she asks with irritation,”Seriously? That’s all?” And when the school principle calls her in to explain that her son has been skipping school with forged excuse letters, rather than being angry, Dorothea is impressed that her boy could forge her signature so well. She even starts to write excuse notes of her own with a real signature when Jamie decides not to go in on that day. ‘Please excuse Jamie from school. He was involved in a small plane accident. Fortunately, he was not hurt.’ She’s also a smoker who insists that it won’t affect her because unlike today where there’s a health issue, back when she started smoking it wasn’t dangerous. Dorothea will die of lung cancer. That’s not a spoiler, by the way; her voice-over tells us of her own demise.

The fact that the film seems to wander all over the place with no real developments or outcomes – there’s no hook upon which to hang an event, and no follow-through to give it a point – there’s nothing to aim for. And yet, ultimately, there’s such a warm feeling of overall likability to everything and everyone, particularly Benning, that time spent in the company of these people makes for a pleasing way to allow two hours to pass. It’s Mills’ love letter to his mother and the affection is clearly evident. Fading with Rudy Vallee’s As Time Goes By seems so appropriate.

MPAA rating: R    Length: 118 Minutes    Overall rating: 7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Fiddler on the Roof – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center, Phoenix

Regarding Broadway, to quote Eric Idle’s comically brash lyrics from Monty Python’s Spamalot, “You haven’t got a clue if you don’t have a Jew.” It was a funny song, but as with much of the Python humor, there was also that undeniable foundation of truth buried in the naughty, schoolyard wit, and it was the recognition of this honesty that made the sequence funny. Screenwriter William Goldman said the same thing but in a more direct and compact manner: “Without Jews, there simply would have been no musical comedy to speak of in America.”

The story of the Broadway musical, the writers, the composers, and the lyricists of the Great White Way, is essentially a Jewish one. With the exception of Cole Porter, the famous names of the American musical theatre – Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, then later, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and more recently, Stephen Schwartz – are Jewish, and even Porter, after a succession of flops, is on record as once saying, “I’m going to write Jewish tunes.”

However, the crucial point that students of Broadway should recognize is that despite the creation of only a small handful of musicals that were written with a Jewish appeal – I Can Get if For You Wholesale, for example, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*AP*L*A*N, and to a lesser degree, Funny Girl – Jewish writers took their people’s stories of escaping persecution, re-shaped them and assimilated them to reflect the American experience. Thus Jerome Kern wrote of racism in Showboat, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote of escaping the Nazis in The Sound of Music, and racism in South Pacific. If you look, you can find similar Jewish themes assimilated into other famous musicals, such as Paint Your Wagon, West Side Story and My Fair Lady.

The historical importance of Fiddler on the Roof and its place in the story of the American musical comedy is paramount. It’s the concluding chapter. The show opened on Broadway in 1964. Take the turn of the 20th Century as the starting point of the development of the American Broadway musical, then look ahead, sixty-four years later, to Fiddler on the Roof. It’s the first show to be based on its creators’ historic origins – the descendants of immigrants to America and western Europe – without assimilating its themes and content to the American experience, only its presentational style. Tevye the Milkman’s escape from persecution and his journey to a new life in a new world at the end of the nineteenth century really is the Jewish American experience; it’s also the prologue to the foundation of the great American musical. In the way that Tevye talks of completing the circle in his village, the appearance in ‘64 of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway rounded off the story of American theatre; it came full circle.

After a well-received run in Tucson at the end of last year, Arizona Theatre Company has begun 2017 by bringing its new production of Fiddler on the Roof to Phoenix in its downtown valley home at Herberger Center, and it’s an undeniably thrilling theatrical experience. Based on the tales of Sholom Aleichem, though by writer Joseph Stein’s admission, far removed from them in content – the stories were written in a different form, in a different language, for a different audience already familiar with the structure of the ramshackle, poverty-stricken Jewish villages in Czarist Russia – Fiddler on the Roof is about the breakdown of traditional values and the elimination of a village community by aggressive, bullying forces, told through the voice of Tevye, the hardworking village milkman as he relates life with his wife, Golde, his five daughters, and the people of his fictional village, Anatevka.

The supporting cast is large, and its a good one. Counting the names listed in the production’s playbill, there are twenty-eight, with several players doubling in character, but at the center of any Fiddler production is the casting of Anatevka’s Bible misquoting milkman, and Eric Polani Jensen makes for one outstanding Tevye. His speaking voice sounds initially higher than the one you might normally associate with the character, but his singing voice is loud and robust, his physical presence, burly and strong, and more importantly, within moments of appearing, he creates an immediate rapport with the audience. He talks directly to a silent God, one that might not even be listening, but during the huge opening number, Tradition, he’s also talking to us, and there are moments when it feels as though he might be talking to each of us, individually. Jensen’s delivery of lines already known and repeatedly heard in subsequent revivals and regional productions, not forgetting the highly successful film version with Topol, are here delivered with new pauses, hesitations and the raising and lowering of sounds that come across as though they’re being spoken for the first time.

But it’s not just Tevye’s spoken word that creates character. The look in Jensen’s eyes as Tevye reacts with total confusion at his oldest daughter’s breakdown as she kneels before him, begging not to be forced into an arranged marriage, is just as heartbreaking in its subtle way as the broader and more obvious strokes when later as he refuses to accept another daughter’s marriage to a Russian soldier.

It’s clear that director David Ira Goldstein has a passion for Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical. He honors Joseph Stein’s original book and the ‘64 production by making no attempts to re-invent or re-imagine the work, yet skillfully guides the production through its steps, complete with a revolving stage that effectively advances both the show’s humor and its pathos.

During the dream sequence where choreographer Kathryn Van Meter has her walking dead villagers move like nightmare animatronic figures from behind their gravestones, the revolving stage adds to the sequence as Tevye comically flees the pursuing spectre of Fruma Sarah (Sarah Wolter). And during the sorrowful conclusion as Tevye wearily pulls his horseless cart carrying everything he owns as he leaves behind everything and everyone he has ever known, the revolving stage adds to the illusion of Tevye’s weary, back breaking movement as the wheels on his cart circle round and round. You’ll feel emotionally drained.

Pictures by Tim Fuller

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ATC website

Posted in Theatre