"Fiddler on the Roof" at Goodspeed

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

“If I Were a RICH MAN” “… would it spoil some vast eternal plan?” Tevye, the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof,” implores God. Meantime, being poor, and having to support a wife and five daughters is the least of his worries. His family, his religious traditions, even his Jewish village, which is situated in pre-revolutionary Russia, are all about to be affected by outsiders. And yet, like a fiddler perched precariously on a rooftop, our hero clings to a spirit that sustained centuries of his people. No matter what your religious or cultural affiliations are, most of us come from families that were similarly affected by social changes and were forced to make adjustments. That’s why this very human tale by Jewish writer, Shalom Aleichem, is so universal and hits home to family audiences at Goodspeed Opera House.

The original, 1964 production by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick starred Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova, and was the longest running show on Broadway at the time. It won almost all the Tony awards.The show was also successfully performed abroad and translated into many languages. The 1971 film with Topol as Tevye was repeatedly seen on TV and it must have been revived by almost every high school in the United States.

Adam Heller heads this wonderful revival and miraculously makes the colorful characterization of Tevye entirely his own. Heller, who never played the part before, can now stand proudly with Zero Mostel and Topol who were also able to give individual interpretations of this very human character. In fact, the entire production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ruggiero, is vivid and refreshing – even if, like me, you’ve seen the show and the film countless of times. Interestingly, Ruggiero met with Seheldon Harnick, one of the original creators, in order to glean additional insight and it’s the intimacy, the focus, and the flavor that makes Goodspeed’s show so special.

In the beginning, Teveye sings about “Tradition.” He is “blessed” with five daughters and according to tradition, it’s the father who must find successful husbands, make the weddings and supply individual dowries -- a big load for a poor milkman. It also bothers Teveye that he has no sons to carry forth his family’s name and pray for him when he dies -- another tradition (which was not dwelled upon here). On top of this, his horse is lame and all he can do to scrape out a living is to shrug his shoulders, pull his milk wagon and make the best of what he’s been given.

If all this worry is not enough, Teveye’s three, older daughters played by Barrie Kreinick, Elizabeth DeRosa and Jen Brisssman, have independent minds. Their sweet voices begin to question some of the old traditions when Yente, the Matchmaker, played by Cheryl Stern, (“Yenta” means “busy-body”) arranges a match for Tzeitel with the rich, old butcher, Lazar Wolf (John Payonk). Payonk gives a proud, stand-up performance as the butcher. Stern needs to slow down her wonderful lines so we can fully appreciate the matchmaker’s witty remarks because, what Yenta sez, and the way she sezzez it, is typical of Jewish humor. The knocking on wood and the frequent spitting away at curses are long-gone. Yet, it’s the revival of superstitious gestures like these that add kosher, salt
seasoning to this show.

The trouble begins when Teveye’s oldest daughter rebels against her being matched to an old, widowed, yet wealthy butcher, and her sisters follow suit. Against tradition, they each select husbands -- without their father’s permission: Motel (David Perlman) is a poor tailor who dreams of owning a sewing machine, Perchik (Abdiel Vivancos) is a revolutionary activist who is exiled to Siberia, and against all odds, Fyedka (Timothy Hassler) is a Christian, Russian soldier. The last blow, marrying a non-Jew, and especially a person who represents Jewish oppressors is too much to endure and the heartbroken Teveye disowns the couple. As the outside world is also being turned upside down, the villagers who were barely tolerated by the Czar’s army are sadly forced to leave their village and a future that is unknown.

Lori Wilner plays Tevye’s bossy wife, “Golda,” and merits an extra “hurrah” for her very real characterization. The duet in “Do You Love Me?” is memorable. The audience feels drawn into the saloon gathering, the ghostly dream demonstration, and the wedding celebration that sadly comes to an abrupt end. Parker Esse nicely recreates Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. Despite Goodspeed’s restricted space, he captures the zesty spirit of Russian, exhibition steps and contrasts them with the traditional, joyful, Jewish men’s dancing. The carefully timed “Bottle Dance” is as mesmerizing as it was on Broadway. So rejoice in this splendid show and sing “To Life!”

Playing to full houses and extended to September 12, Tickets: 860 873-8668

This review appears in "On CT&NY Theatre - August/2014

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