Show struggles at times to find right voice
Fiddler on the Roof – Massey Theatre April 7 – 23
Review by Olivia Morgan
More than fifty years after its Broadway premiere, there’s a reason Fiddler on the Roof remains a widely beloved piece of musical theatre. Exploring the difficulties that arise when tradition wrestles with change, audiences of all ages and backgrounds continue to connect with the deep themes within the piece.
While not perfect, Royal City Musical Theatre’s production is a largely successful realization of this enduring classic.
Production benefits from full Broadway-style staging
The company benefits from its producing model, a semi-professional show where a few core leads are played by members of Canadian Actor’s Equity. Other cast members are either emerging performers or community members who don’t perform professionally.
In Vancouver this model is essentially the only financially sound way to produce a classically staged large-scale Broadway musical. These shows call for a lot of bodies on stage; seeing a locally produced production with a full cast makes a difference.
Director Valerie Easton doubles as choreographer and creates pleasing stage pictures throughout. Clearly she is comfortable commanding a fully manned ship.
Set in the small, fictional Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, Fiddler on the Roof follows impoverished, hardworking Tevye, a Jewish milkman with strong religious values. As his eldest three daughters come of age and pair off with their various mates, we see the universal struggle of a father watching his children mature.
Tevye’s struggle is made all the more complicated by the fact his daughters appear determined to buck tradition. The young women choose their own husbands, whether Tevye likes it or not. His daughter Chava does the unthinkable, and falls in love with a man outside the faith. Tevye is forced to make a choice between losing touch with his traditions, or losing his daughter completely.
If that isn’t trying enough for Tevye, it’s also not a good time for Russian Jews. Town by town their neighbourhoods are facing pogroms; organized violence perpetrated by Russian officials. More and more, the Russian Jews are driven out of their homes.
In this production, Warren Kimmel’s Tevye is completely loveable. He has a beautiful voice and strikes a lovely balance between humour and despair. Many of Tevye’s lines are jokes, but the reality is he’s a very poor man with very few options. Kimmel makes the most of this rich material.
Other stand-outs include Kerry O’Donovan as Motel, the nervous tailor who desperately wants to marry Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Natasha Zacher). His joy as he wins his bride is palpable. Motel’s big number, Miracle of Miracles, is written rather repetitively, but O’Donovan’s delivery remains buoyant and enjoyable throughout.
Playing Motel’s rival, Lazar Wolfe, Jonathan Bruce is delightful. We root for him to lose Tzeitel, but when he does his heartbreak is arresting, eliciting audible sighs from the audience.
Playing Tevye’s middle daughter Hodel, Jenika Schofield achieves great success by keeping things simple. She has a stillness onstage that really works for the role and her voice is clear as a bell.
In the relatively small role of Fruma Sarah, Erin Palm shows off vocal virtuosity as she volleys back and forth between an almost cartoonish cackle and some fairly operatic riffs.
Actors struggle to find right voice
The production is strong, but it’s not a home run. There are a variety of accents on stage; some are Russian, others Yiddish and, bewilderingly, some have a Brooklyn feel. Accent work is difficult, as this production illustrates. Lacking uniformity, the accents become a distraction.
While often billed as something of a comedy, at its core, Fiddler on the Roof is about tension; the tension between generations, between different religions and cultural groups, and the tension between men and women. In this production the tension is lacking.
There should be a sense of real danger here, such as the scene when Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding celebrations are interrupted by a pogrom, or when the Anatevkans are ultimately driven from their homes. These are high stakes. Unfortunately, this production plays it safe and appears more comfortable dwelling in the lighthearted aspects of the story. Without an edge, the core of the show is missing at times.
Set designer Brian Ball deeply understands the friction this piece calls for. His large set pieces evoke Eastern Europe with an almost storybook sensibility. The stage curtain, made of patched together lace table cloths, is a masterpiece. It’s the perfect icon for what the characters are striving to achieve; to create something beautiful in their lives with whatever they have.
The Bottom Line
Overall this Fiddler on the Roof is an enjoyable evening. It would, however, benefit from more trust in the material’s inherent grit.
Reviewed at April 8 preview
Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Cast: Warren Kimmel, Jennifer Poole, Natasha Zacher, Jenika Schofield, Julia Ullrich, Maia Hoile, Arta Negaphan, Sylvia Zaradic, Kerry O’Donovon, Zachary Wolfman, Jonathan Bruce, Kyle Oliver, Erin Palm, John Cousins, William Tippery, Michael Wilkinson, Rachael Carlson, Kaitlyn Yott, Emma Ciprian, Owen Scott, Luas Crandall, Jacob Wolstencroft, Jacquollyne Keath, Colleen Byberg, Tiffany Hambrook, Michael Stusiak, Matt Ramer, Adam Turpin, Peter Stainton, Tosh Sutherland, Darian Grant.
Production: Director Choreographer – Valerie Easton, Musical Director – James Bryson, Producer – Chelsea Carlson, Associate Producer – Alen Dominguez, Stage Manager – Ingrid Turk, Assistant Stage Managers – Samantha Paras / Gerry Torres, Technical Director – Don Parman, Set Design – Brian Ball, Sound Design – Tim Lang, Lighting Design – Gerald King, Costumes – Christina Sinosich / Patrice Godin, Props – Omanie Elias