Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof

When the stage musical (1964) Fiddler on the Roof came out as a movie in 1971, I was in  junior high school.  If I recall correctly, my cousin (hi, cuz), who was older and wiser than I, panned the movie, “It’s just a bunch of girls wanting to get married”.  Maybe it was her future aspirations to save the world in the Peace Corp that had her thinking more like  Perchik, the university student from Kiev who considers social justice more important than love until he meets Hodel and sings a duet “Now I Have Everything”. Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself with marrying off the second daughter.  Let me back up to clarify that we trekked out of the mountains to the Free State Valley to see the Spring Musical, Fiddler on the Roof, at the Fresta Valley Christian School.

I will admit that Fiddler’s book is light on Russian Revolution era history, with a lot of how-to-get-Tevye’s-and-Golde’s three eligible daughters (two others too young) secured in their lives through marriage.  In case you have not hummed a “Daidle deedle daidle
Daidle daidle deedle daidle dum” recently, Fiddler is about TRADITION! and the change in society.  With the enthusiasm of 1960’s revisionist history, Teyve tells the story of how his Czarist era village carries on, trying to ignore or minimize the effects of pogroms while following their Jewish traditions for family, work, prayer and life.  His wife works with the matchmaker, who selects suitable (e.g. wealthy widows, mostly) prospective husbands.  But, the daughters seek other plans, which probably says more about 1960’s feminism than what a Jewish daughter would have actually done in the early 20th century in a small Jewish village in Russia.

Nonetheless, they marry in order, but not by the matchmaker’s council.  Tzeitel marries Motel the tailor; Hodel marries Perchik the revolutionary student; Chava marries Fyedka, the Russian soldier.  Around these changes in the social order, the oppression of history occurs.  During Tzeitel’s marriage the local Constable apologizes that the soldiers have been ordered to enact a pogrom.  In the second act, Perchik is arrested and sent to Siberia, for which Hodel leaves her family to marry and support him.  Tevye considers Chava dead after she secretly marries Fyedka, outside the faith. But when the Constable returns at the end of the musical to announce that he must carry out orders to clear all of the Jewish people out of the village in three days time, Fyedka and Chava also announce that they cannot live in this unjust society and will exodus also to Krakow.  Knowing history, we are aware that those who go to cities in Russia and Poland will very likely die in a future war.  Those who immigrate to the Holy Land and USA will struggle for years to re-establish their traditions.

A challenge for school productions is using your resources, when you are not a school for the performing arts, aka Fame or Glee.  Fresta Valley Christian School has all of about 250 students, K – 12, of which 38 are in the cast, 18 are in the orchestra (including a few alumni), 4 worked the crew, along with devoted parents and alumni, who helped with everything from rehearsals to providing meals during hours of practice.  Their “theatre” is the multipurpose room in which the stage grows out of about a 30′ x 30′ space, with a similar space set up for the live orchestra.  We in the audience are in the other 2/3’s of this multi-purpose room.  Imagination and skills take these pieces and assemble an engaging evening. (Forgive me for not being able to name each participant and his or her contribution to this production, on the other hand, as Professor Harold Hill asserts in Music Man, keeping this many young people in the band is keeping them out of Trouble).

The set crew (David and Ron King, Heather and Emma Woodward, Linda Catir) divide the stage area into Tevye’s and Golde’s front room in the back corner of the stage, the village across the front and side of the stage, with rotating walls available to pull out and turn to create the tavern inn and tailor’s shop.  The window dressing curtain of the home can be pulled across the front room to conceal it and create an exterior wall for village scenes.  William Keller keeps the orchestra going during these scene changes for a smooth flow.  While the math begs the question of whether you could assemble the whole village on this set, the crew’s clever creation of space works well.

One set element that work particularly well is a door that is in the yard of Tevye’s and Golde’s home.  They retrieve various household items from this, suggesting that it leads to a storage or work area.  This door is set on a moving platform, allowing it to be repositioned to become the entry to the tavern or tailor’s shop.  One risk of moving set pieces is that they move.  At the end of the tavern scene, as the villagers and soldier’s exited through the door, the platform began to tilt and fall backward.  In an excellently improvised exchange Teyve (Isaac Witt) and Mordcha (Ryan Strong) joke that this door needs to be fixed.

An ingenious use of this door was to transform it into Tevye’ and Golde’s bed, for his Dream scene, by placing a box at the base of the door and draping clothe over the door.  With their legs on the box, backs against the door, with quilts and pillows in place, we had the “view” of being above them and seeing the talk about his dream in bed.  Then to bring the dream to life, Grandma Tzeitel (Eleni Hanson) pops out of the box under the bed, literally tossing Tevye out of bed in horror.  Then to take this scene over the top, Fruma-Sarah (Brittany Worsham), the widow of Lazar Wolf, enters in a costume that makes her appear 16 feet tall.  This is actually difficult in that the room’s ceiling was probably 10 feet hight, but dreams can do this to you.  But, I get ahead of myself.

William Keller supports the cast by directing the orchestral performance of nearly 3 hours.  Several of the Concert Orchestra members were on stage and the score has a number of wind instruments, requiring Mr. Keller to assemble a different group of musician from those which we heard at the recent Spring Concert. I was impressed to learn that just a month after that concert, the orchestra was putting up a musical. In addition to filing the time during set changes, the orchestra sets the tempo for each scene. Given the performance space, balancing the orchestra with the singer’s voices takes quite a talent.

Golde’s Eyes & Tevye Hands

Isaac Witt brings the lead role of Tevye center stage. He excels in the moments of introspection, “…on the other hand…”, when he speaks directly to the audience, telling us of the events of village and reflecting on his dilemmas of being “Papa”. Leah Papadopoulos, as Golde, balance his strutting and arm waving, with a roll of her eye and pursing of her lips, as she too frets over the fate of their daughters.

Amber Phares, portraying their oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and Jake Malony, her suitor, Motel, are a great contrast that fit perfectly with their metaphor of the hand and glove going together. Amber carries herself with reserve, petite

Motel (sorry, Tzeitel, you were hidden in the curtain call)

and constrained in her expressions.  Jake is tall, lanky, and full of gestures and expression. But, she is bold in her assertion that they have pledged their love, while he is timid in asking Tevye for her hand in marriage. Yet, with Tevye’s blessing, marriage, and the flurrishing of their family and tailor shop, Jake shows his transformation of the tailor to a confident husband and father.

Abby Clark starts as a bolder younger sister, Hodel, initially, as she challenges Tzeitel to marry the man whom Yente (Casey Wilfong), the matchmaker, has arranged. However, when the university student, Perchik (John Phillips), arrives from Kiev, Abby’s stride shortens to cowering as he offers his hand to dance. John’s eye sparkles when he sets aside his lofty defense of words, extends his hand and gently guides Abby fist in a step, then a hop, then a turn. At Tzeitel’s and Motel’s wedding, he turns everyone with his bold gesture to put aside the rail that separates the young men and women to dance with Abby. When accused of sin, he challenges the Rabbi (Christian Dudley) to cite the scriptures that requires that men and women dance in separate circles. When the rabbi finds no commandment, Tevye steps forward and directs Golde to dance with him. Then Motel steps forward with Tzeitel in hand. They embrace the social changes that Perchik and Hodel will agitate to their exile.

By the middle of the second Act, the marriages come faster, as the evening extends longer. Abbie Cress, the third daughter, Chava, has floated across the stage in numerous prior scenes carrying a book with her milk bucket, or broom, or laundry. She is a wisp behind her older sisters. But, she did not go unnoticed, by Fyedka (Brett Sumrall) one of the Russian soldiers, who also often has a book on hand. Of course, their courtship must be clandestine as she is Jewish, and by implication, he is Orthodox Christian. Whereas Brett looks confidently to win over Abbie’s love, she diverts her eyes when he first asks her to read a book then talk with him. Later Abbie diverts her gaze toward her family when she had a desire to embrace Brett, which can happen only out of the view of others. After they are married by the priest and Tevye learns that he has lost his daughter, he sings “Chavaleh”, using the metephor of a bird to represent his daughter’s flight. Abby’s prior floating becomes soaring across the stage as she and her sister’s dance.

Three daughters married, but none within the tradition for which Tevye stands. He beseeches God to not bless him with so many tribulations. His hands are held high and his gaze upward, filling the stage with his presence. But, soon, after the Constable (Ben

Soldiers and Constable

Freer) reluctantly informs Tevye and the other Jewish villagers that they have three days to sell their homes and possessions, in order to adhere to the edict to vacate the  region, he pushes his cart laboriously, takes out the milking stool, and sits in a heap. His labor is only beginning, as he, his family, and his neighbors will begin the exodus of another Jewish diaspora to the cities of Russia, Eastern Europe, the Holy Land, and the USA.

Yente & Fiddler

From the opening notes to the closing procession, the Fiddler (Julia Graves) is present in the village. While having no lines, Julia speaks clearly with her fiddle whether musing over life, celebrating love, or lamenting expulsion. On the other hand, we should be privileged to hear more of Julia’s fiddling, as she will be a junior next year.

While all art attempts to convey themes and to influence one’s impressions, I find art, which engages one’s personal experiences, memorable. During Tzeitel’s and Motel’s wedding, my mind wandered to the wonderful experience that I had, when I lived in NYC, and attended the Orthodox Jewish wedding of a friend. I was honored to be invited with the other men to review the scriptures (okay, so I do not read or speak Hebrew, but I can press my hands together and bow up and down in respect to my Jewish friends), then to check under the veil to assure that the bride was Rachel and not Leah, to cheer as the groom crushed the glass under the chuppah, to dance with the circle of men (sorry, Hodel, no mixed dancing here), and to help lift the chairs with the bride and groom (oh, is my back going to hurt tomorrow!). No DJ versions of “The Chicken Dance” or “Shout”, but these folks would dance and dance and dance any of us under the table.

While the generation of Russian immigrants to NYC was gone before I drifted in, I did have the opportunity to becomes friends with the generation that immigrated in the late 1930’s after Kristallnacht and Holocaust. The woman whom I rented a room from and her neighbors hosted me to meals and cheap beer, and wonderful stories of Vienna in the 30’s and NYC in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. And, sadly at the hospital I saw more than one older patient who bore the tattooed numbers from the Nazi concentration camps. It was not my place to ask about their survival. One day, in respect, I asked a young Hassidic Jewish woman if she would give me permission to provide her therapy. She replied, “You are goyim (Gentile), but even God has given you skills to heal.”

Fiddler is about tradition, but it is also about relationships. What better idea for the tradition of Judaism, which is the narrative of God’s relationship with His people.

(I took photos only during the curtain call as to not distract the performers only feet from me.  Thus, the groupings of cast members does not always make sense with the scenes of the play)

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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7 Responses to Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof

  1. Barneysday says:

    Well done. I enjoy the historical commentary as well as that about the play. Thanks for sharing

  2. walkingsmall says:

    I stand very well corrected in my teenage misinformed assessment. (Although the grown-up Susan is chuckling at the teenage Susan’s opinions – I haven’t changed much) Now, I will have to either find and attend a local play or rent it and see it again. You have piqued my interest. Nicely done … Kiev, Russia …Who knew????

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I’m sure that your Ukraine experience will give you additional insights 🙂

      • walkingsmall says:

        Watched it on amazon.com – loved it! I completely forgot this wonderful story of girls getting husbands. And those farmhouses and old buildings (so Ukraine)

  3. mj monaghan says:

    Very nice wrap up of the production. It’s amazing what a school can do in spite of the physical restrictions and financial constraints. Sounds like a wonderfully produced Fiddler.

  4. Pingback: Theatre Review: Directing “Fiddler” | hermitsdoor

  5. Pingback: Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof | hermitsdoor

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