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Fiddler on the Roof – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

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Fiddler on the Roof is a unique musical, and here’s why.  It’s one where within the first minute or so you can tell, in a general sense, whether the production is going to work, and there are two clues.

The first clue is the entrance of Tevye the poor milkman. By the sound of his voice, the movement of his body and his connection with the audience, it should become immediately apparent whether the performer with whom you’ll be spending the next two and half hours is going to be good company.  The second is a moment later, and it occurs as soon as the cast enters.  If those voices declaring Tradition in the manner the piece demands – those vigorous, robust sounds should fill the house – then everything else will fall into place. The new Arizona Broadway Theatre production as directed by M. Seth Reines achieves both.

When the full cast circles on stage, their arms in the air, their rich, full-bodied voices bouncing off the house walls, resonating around you, goose-bumps follow, which is exactly the effect the piece demands. And at the center of it all is Tevye (Jason E. Simon) who not only engages the moment he appears but by sheer presence alone takes an immediate command of the stage. It’s as if he’s personally invited us in to his little corner of the world and he has a story he wants to tell.

There have always been two schools of thought when putting on a new production of Fiddler and it’s all to do with style. The musical is really a drama where the first half establishes the characters, presents their family issues, and illustrates the differences between long-held cultural traditions and the changing attitudes of modern times, and it’s all done with song, dance and lot of good humor.  The second half changes tone.  The tale becomes darker, then ultimately heartbreakingly sad.  The issue of style is not how dramatic the show needs to be, it’s how to deliver the humor.

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When Topol opened in Israel, then London, then toured the globe, his hearty, European, approach created a realistic, full-bodied, earthy character that seemed tailor-made for Tevye, later repeated in the film. As far as the world was concerned, Topol and Tevye were one of the same. The Broadway production was different.

Comic performer Zero Mostel took the stage, and his wildly acclaimed and hugely popular crowd-pleasing approach was to present the humor in a broader and more American style.  It was comedic, Yiddish shtick direct from the Catskills, and by all accounts, very, very funny.  Stories of his ad-libs – one even referenced Jimmy Carter – have become legendary.  It may have put the rest of the cast constantly on edge, but Broadway audiences loved it.  One of the last Fiddler productions in the valley was presented at Scottsdale’s Desert Stages Theatre; that one went the Topol way.  ABT’s handsome new production goes for shtick.

The strength of ABT’s presentation is undoubtedly those voices. It’s not only the larger, ensemble production numbers like Tradition, To Life and the inspirational Sunrise Sunset that fill the theatre, even the lesser known songs such as Sabbath Prayer, Miracle of Miracles and Now I Have Everything soar with equal strength.  Close your eyes and you can savor the audio with just as much enjoyment.  But open them during Tevye’s Dream; the mixture of sound and staging as the imagined ghost of Fruma-Sarah (Renee Kathleen Koher) returns from the grave surrounded by swirling smoke as she levitates above the cast like a threatening, tuneful banshee is a production highlight. Same with the Bottle Dance during the wedding sequence. They’re both inspiring, musical moments that fully capture the real essence of what Fiddler on the Roof is all about.

Kurtis W. Overby’s choreography is full of clever flourishes that add to the overall effect; the Bottle Dance is undoubtedly one, but subtler moments as when Motel (Jared Mancuso) envelopes Tzeitel (Rebecca Kuznick) in his tailor’s fabric bolt the moment he’s secured permission for marriage, then unravels her again is a simple though effective touch. However, the To Life sequence, as good as it sounds, could have used more male bodies to fill out the wide set.

In addition to the above-mentioned cast members, Johanna Carlisle’s Yente the Matchmaker warms the stage with her character’s humorous, gossipy presence, plus Bobby Underwood’s Lazar Wolf, the village butcher, not only sings with that same, forceful quality as Simon’s Tevye but can also deliver the humor equally well. The conversation in the bar between Lazar and Tevye as the butcher attempts to arrange his own marriage with Tevye’s eldest, and Tevye thinking that the man is referring to his cow remains as funny as it ever did.

Interestingly, Kat Bailes approaches her sharp-tongued Golde with a somewhat different delivery than often associated with the character.  Golde is certainly bossy, but there always remained a friendly center to the character.  She’s the straight guy surrounded by a village of comics.  Here, Tevye’s wife not only appears slightly younger than you would expect of the character, but the performance is considerably more shrewish, void of Golde’s warmth, and not altogether effective. Plus, in the first half where the production’s emphasis is on comedy, her lines are delivered with a rhythm that sound more clipped than humorous. But Bailes certainly sings well, and it’s in the second half where the humor turns to drama that her Golde works; the moment she breaks down and falls to her knees once her fifteen year-old Chava (Alexandra Schwartz) runs away with Russian soldier Fyedka (Shane Hurst) feels genuinely heartfelt and tragic.

Fiddler on the Roof is one of the most popular musicals ever.  There’s a good chance that a chunk of the audience may have already seen at least one production since it first appeared on Broadway in 1964, not to mention the highly successful 1971 film.  Plus, it’s inevitable that comparisons will always be made.  Whether you favor Zero Mostel’s comedic shtick or Topol’s grounded, peasant realism is down to the preference of either subtle or direct humor; or more simply, it’s whatever version you saw first.  But with a production as handsome as this, sung with voices such as these, it’s the newcomer to Fiddler that will receive the most enjoyment.  If you’ve never previously seen Fiddler on the Roof in any shape or form, then this is the one you’ll remember above all others.

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Pictures courtesy of Arizona Broadway Theatre/MikeBPhoto.net

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

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