Fiddler on the Roof, Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed and choreographed by Gary John La Rosa.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
". . .a few weeks may be too late."
Joanna Glushak and Brad Oscar; photo: Kevin Sprague
From the outset, "Fiddler on the Roof" is playing with the urgency and immediacy of a land surrounded by enemies set to destroy a way of life. This musical, now on stage in Pittsfield, MA at Barrington Stage Company’s main theater on Union Street, has always spoken to the end of a traditional way of life, a harshly imposed set of changes affecting the way an entire race of people will live out their lives. It’s opening number, "Tradition" sets up that historical family structure and how decisions must be made, how people must be regarded. It is loud, boisterous, layered with counter-melodies. Nearly three hours, representing one year, later "The Exodus" - a number played in silence and mime - brings us into the new reality where traditional ways are awkwardly altered by politics and fate.
In between those two the story of one family’s personal losses and challenges plays out. Tevye the Dairyman and his wife Golde are the parents of five daughters. The year of the tale brings three of those girls into sharp focus as each takes a firm grip on her own life and her future. Tzeitel loves a tailor, Motel, though her parents, with the help of Yenta the Matchmaker, have planned to marry her off to a rich, older man, Lazar Wolf, the Butcher. Hodel falls in love with a dissident student from Kiev, Perchik, whose intellectual approach to life appeals to her modest sensibilities. Chava, younger than the other two, is bookish and shares a philosophical mutuality with a young Russian named Fyedka. The question of love haunts Tevye as his daughters fall into the 20th century and its new traditions, traditions that contradict all that he knows to be true.
This is heady stuff for a musical. In 1964 when it premiered, less than ten years beyond "West Side Story," dramatic musicals were forging new roads into the American mind and heart. This show surprised Broadway with its long success. Thought to be too Jewish it appealed to more than its historical audience because of the humanity it offered. Other cultures had gone into the last century with their traditions and seen them altered as well. The deep, darkness of Jewish traditions of the 19th century were seen as one more piece of evidence in the great changes the world had witnessed in the evolution of world history and culture.
This production features some wonderful performers and artists. Illumination, not just the wonderful lighting by Jeff Davis, but the way the stage pictures seem to brighten the decisions made by Tevye and his family, is the watchword for this edition of "Fiddler..." as Brad Oscar presents a man, Tevye, who can only accept the word of God as it comes to him in his own life. There are no false notes in this performance. Oscar is true to the character at every moment. He creates a sense of family and community in every scene and he never pulls focus from another player, at his best in duets and ensembles where he partners the ones he loves and respects. Oscar is the glue that moves as needed to allow distancing, yet holds together those needed aspects of his world.
One of those needed aspects is his wife, played with unusual strength, anger and warmth by Joanna Glushak. Their duet "Do You Love Me?" is almost a new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Twin Soliloquies." Glushak brings an inner sensibility to the responses and lets us hear her heart instead of just her mind. She has a most expressive face and there are moments when she speaks one thing and shows us another. This is a performance not to be missed.
Hodel and Perchik are played by Stephanie Lynne Mason and Alexander Levin. They make a marvelous duo and their love duet, "Now I Have Everything" is almost as intensely moving as Mason’s rendition of the song "Far From the Home I Love" which is almost guaranteed to have you in tears. These are two actors to watch.
Dawn Rother plays Chava and she will have you crying. As a dancer she is lovely, and as a daughter whose actions nearly destroy her father, she is sweetly, caringly, emotional. It will be hard to forget her final moments in the play.
Gordon Stanley is most successful as the Rabbi. Travis Nesbitt is handsomely playing Fyedka. Colin Israel is a perfect Motel. Ben Holtzman is an ideal Nachum. Michael Scott could be a bit more conflicted as The Constable and Andrew Mayer is perfection itself as the symbol of a long tradition, The Fiddler. The large ensemble plays wonderfully and there is no role that can be ignored, though space limits me here.
Gary John La Rosa has recreated the historic choreographic look of the show’s creator, Jerome Robbins. He has done a wonderful thing. His production rings true to the original and it is only in the performances of Tevye and Golde that he has brought in new elements in the playing of this piece. This is not a re-imagining of "Fiddler on the Roof" but rather a rebirth of the show. The baby is the same even though a few elements are different.
The designers (Jack Mehler - sets; Michael Bottari and Ronald Case - costumes; Jeff Davis - lights) have given us revised imagery, but the result is the same as always. Tradition is at the core of Barrington Stage’s production and tradition carries the night. Barrington, once again, has an offering at the alter of theater that burns bright and strong and presents a sharp scent of caring for the future of the past.
Stephanie Lynne Mason and Brad Oscar; photo: Kevin Sprague
Dawn Rother as Chava; photo: Kevin Sprague
Fiddler on the Roof plays at Barrington Stage Company’s main stage on Union Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 14. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-236-8888.