It is said that because of its enduring popularity around the globe, at any given minute of a twenty-four hour day, there are at least ten productions of Fiddler on the Roof in performance somewhere in the world. Here in the valley there are currently two.
One of those productions is presented as theatre-in the-round at Scottsdale’s Desert Stages Theatre. Because of its style of presentation, there are no sets in the traditional sense, just the talent required and the props each performer brings with them. As a consequence, the fun thing that Desert Stages always does with each new show is to discover how the squared auditorium has been designed.
For Fiddler, the walls are painted black and decorated throughout with tree trunks, limbs and branches that appear to grow out of the dark surroundings. It’s as if we’re sitting right in the middle of the little Russian village of Anatevka where the action takes place, invisible witnesses seated in the center of the action but unobserved by the characters acting out the scenario around us. It’s very effective.
As the symbolic title suggests, each member of the little Jewish village is a fiddler on the roof, attempting to keep their balance between traditions of the old while acknowledging the new, but never leaning too far to the one while ignoring the other for fear of toppling over. In Fiddler, it’s Tevye the village milkman who is constantly trying to keep his balance. He dreams of being wealthy, but accepts with a shrug that it will never be. “It’s true we are the chosen people,” he states in one of his many private conversations with God, “But couldn’t you once in a while choose someone else?”
There are two camps of thoughts when playing Tevye. Actors either approach the character in the style of Broadway’s Zero Mostel, who played the role in the crowd-pleasing, comical manner of an American Jewish comedian performing shtick to vacationers in the Poconos, or the style of Israeli actor Topol who played Tevye in countries around the world and in the 1971 film. Here, burly Tony Blosser plays the milkman and he employs the heavily accented Topol approach. It’s a good decision. From the moment he utters his opening lines, Tony successfully transports us to a different culture on the other side of the world, even if many of his supporting players maintain their local American voice.
Tony‘s efficient rendering of If I Were A Rich Man works well, but his singing works even better when leading the ensemble in some of the bigger and more tender numbers, like Sabbath Prayer or Sunrise Sunset. He is given good support from both Marie Gouba as his wife, Golde, and from Ginger Muth, who truly captures the comical, busy-body spirit required for Yente, the Matchmaker. Desert Stages is a community theatre, and it casts its roles based on the available pool of auditioning talent. Director Kyle C. Greene has cast the musical well by giving the few leading characters to the stronger performers, and you can see and hear the difference. Where the small roles of the village beggar and the fiddler are traditionally male, here they are both female. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with the casting. Cara Shearer is clearly cast because of her ability to really play the violin. In a production where the music is recorded and aired as playback throughout, it is a pleasure to hear the instrument played live, and Cara does it well.
This is a large ensemble. Occasionally, when everyone is on site, it can look as though there are as many players performing around you as there are people in the audience. Depending on where you’re seated, the show can often look cluttered and in danger of being overcrowded, but the cast do well by following Greene’s able direction and choreography by not tripping over each other and exiting through the four corners with military precision.
The standout moments are good ensemble work in the dream sequence where both Lauren Berkley as Grandmother Tzeitel and Carolyn Paski on stilts as the ghostly Fruma-Sarah make an immediate impression in only minutes of performance time, and in the wedding dance where you hold your breath in case those bottles go flying during the famous and difficult Bottle Dance. And even though there is no sound of smashing glass or the tearing of bed pillows with feathers flying through the air, when the Russian soldiers create havoc at the end of the wedding, the impact of what they’ve done remains a dramatic closer to the intermission.
When done well, Fiddler on the Roof is a powerful piece of musical theatre, incorporating a wonderful score, humor and drama all in one. The first half is loaded with wit and story conflict while the second half changes tone somewhat as the reality of what is going to happen to these unfortunate souls at the hands of the Czar becomes apparent. When families being kicked from their homes talk of moving to a safer haven in Krakow we know what awful things are ahead of them, and it’s heartbreaking, and while here there is no closing moment on a revolving stage as Tevye and his family walk away from their village to an uncertain future, the sight of the world-weary man pulling his cart in a large circle and finally out of sight remains as poignant as ever.
For times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Desert Stages Theatre website.