Fiddler on the Roof -- Topnotch Production at Goodspeed
By Amy J. Barry
Fiddler on the Roof is one of those musicals that stay fresh and relevant despite its age. The play, book by Joseph Stein, based on Tevye and His Daughters and other tales by Sholem Aleichem, opened in 1964 and was the longest running Broadway musical for a decade before Grease took the lead. The themes of religious persecution, poverty, people being displaced from their homes unfortunately still ring true, but so do the themes of love and faith and family and freedom. And oh, what a wonderful musical score, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, with one memorable, heartfelt tune after another.
The Goodspeed production under the precise direction of Rob Ruggiero does great justice to this classic musical. The production moves like clockwork with spot-on performances, perfectly timed scene changes -- Michael Schweikardt designed an inviting, rustic turn-of-the-century set -- enchanting musical numbers under Michael O’Flaherty’s direction, and creatively choreographed dance by Parker Esse.
The play takes place in pre-revolution 1905 in the small Russian village of Anatevka where the Jewish families are under threat of eviction by the Tsar. It opens with you guessed it -- a fiddler on the roof, charmingly performed live by Max Chucker, followed by a super energetic “Tradition,” introducing all the characters that center around Tevye (Adam Heller), a poor dairyman, his wife Golde (Lori Wilner) and their five daughters, the three oldest of which are of marrying age. Yenta, the matchmaker (Cheryl Stern) has been enlisted to find them eligible husbands—whose pocketbooks are more important than their looks or personalities.
Heller, who has previously performed in Goodspeed productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is fabulous as “the papa” trying to hold his family together while the world is dramatically changing around him. He plays the role of Tevye with an ironic sense of humor but without hamming it up. One can honestly feel how torn he is between attempting to maintain his Jewish traditions and his affection for his daughters, inevitably allowing them to follow their hearts and marry for love. Wilner is a good compliment to Heller, as the strong-willed matriarch of the family, whose love for her husband shines through her sarcastic barbs.
Barrie Kreinik is well cast as the eldest daughter Tzeitel, who wants to marry the poor tailor Motel -- played with youthful sincerity by David Perlman -- although her distress could be more apparent at being matched with the twice-her-age overweight butcher Lazar Wolf (played amusingly by John Payonk).
One of the funniest scenes is The Dream sequence when Tevye convinces Golde that he had a dream in which Grandma Tzeitel comes back from the dead along with the10-foot tall Fruma-Sarah -- Lazar’s dead wife (Joy Hermalyn) to convince him that he should let Tzeitel marry Motel.
Among the many marvelous musical numbers are a melodious “Matchmaker,” by the three elder daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel (Elizabeth DeRosa) and Chava (Jen Brissman), a pleasing “If I Were a Rich Man” by Tevye, a lively “Miracle of Miracles” by Motel and an exhilarating “To Life” by Tevye, Lazar and the ensemble. Tevye and Golde sing a romantic “Do You Love Me?” the company performs a lovely, lilting “Sunrise, Sunset,” and Hodel sings a hauntingly beautiful “Far From the Home I Love.”
There’s some terrific dancing among the Russian men in the tavern, including a scene in which they balance bottles on their heads -- yes, it’s real, no tricks.
In the end, the Jewish families are forced to leave their land, but despite their hardships there is a sense of hope and a feeling that the traditions that matter will endure.
For Connecticut shows worth seeing this summer, Goodspeed’s revitalized Fiddler on the Roof should be at the top of the list.
Performances of Fiddler on the Roof have been extended through Sept. 12 at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. For tickets call the box office at 860-873-8668 or online at goodspeed.org
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.