Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2006
I was once turned down for a desk job because I was “not ethnic enough.” Anyone with two brain cells can tell that that is a patently ridiculous statement. We are all “ethnic” and ethnicity is not something that can be quantified. In fact, I am an extreme example of my ethnicity – my Irish/English/Welsh heritage is physically obvious. My Italian heritage is not, but I still talk with my hands, even when I’m driving. What this potential employer meant to say was that my ethnicity was not considered politically correct, and not the ethnic profile s/he wished the company to present. Needless to say, I was no more interested in working for them than they were in hiring me.
But that was a desk job. Acting jobs are very different. Characters come with their own ethnicities built in and it is up to the person casting the show to select actors who can convincingly represent that ethnicity, whether or not it is the same as their own. Fiddler on the Roof is an ethnically specific show. It takes place in a homogenous Russian Jewish shetl in 1905. The actors cast need to be able to channel the energy and rhythms of those people in that place.
Or at least the invented energy and rhythms forged in the mid-1960’s by Jerry Bock (composer), Sheldon Harnick (lyricist), and Joseph Stein (librettist). While Fiddler... is based on the stories by Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916), pseudonym of Sholem Yakov Rabinovitsh or Rabinowitz, a Russian Jew who escaped to America in 1905 as pogroms swept across his native land, there are no doubt that these characters are Broadway Russian Jews – a long way from whatever authentic voice Aleichem may have given them.
When I think of Michael Shiles, the first thing I think of is his wonderful big smile, then his fine singing voice and his dapper personal style. I have enjoyed many of his performances at the Mac-Haydn over the years, but when I heard that he was to play Tevye, I couldn’t imagine him doing the role. It is always possible that my imagination is more limited than Shiles’ talent, and so I went in with an open mind, but the person I saw on that stage for three hours was only Michael Shiles and never Tevye the Milkman. He never managed to be “ethnic enough” to embody the role.
I think biggest problem I have with director Joseph Patton’s vision and Shiles’ interpretation of Tevye is that it emphasizes the comedy and misses the heart of this show. Its creators did not call Fiddler... a “musical comedy,” and neither of the acts has a happy ending. What keeps this tale of religious persecution and changing values from being dark and depressing is Tevye’s wonderful optimism which springs from his faith. That is the heart of the show, and that is what is missing here. Shiles’ plays Tevye’s “conversations” with the Almighty like they were Bob Hope monologues. They are not just jokes, they are deep expressions of faith. The kind of faith embodied in the stories of Abraham and Moses, average men asked to pick up their households and go, which they did because they not only believed in G-d, they trusted him.
Fiddler... is all about Tevye – it is an enormous role. The character appears in almost every scene. The actor playing him does not have to be a world-class singer or dancer, lord knows Zero Mostel was not, but he has to be able to surrender himself completely to the part and provide a clear vision and anchor off of which the rest of the cast can play. Without that anchor other actors are set adrift, clinging to whatever they personally can create of Tevye’s world.
The end result is an odd mix of acting styles. Elizabeth Dowling, who was a charming ingénue last week, plays Tevye’s wife Golde like Mother Courage, awash in Brechtian angst. On the other hand Maggie Marino plays Yente as a broadly comic Jewish stereotype, and steps on all her own laughs.
Stalwarts Karla Shook and Byron DeMent throw themselves vigorously into the roles of Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel and her suitor, Motel the Tailor. They give solid Mac-Haydn-style performances, filled with big moves and big voices. I got a kick out of DeMent reappearing briefly as a Russian solider in the To Life (L'chai-im!) number, minus Motel’s beard and glasses, to lend his fabulous voice to the proceedings.
Celia Shea and Lawren Roulier felt interchangeable to me as Tevye’s middle daughters, Hodel and Chava. They are both pretty brunettes with sweet voices. Shea seemed barely there during what should have been Hodel’s heartbreaking solo Far from the Home I Love. Roulier fared a little better in Chava’s difficult scenes at the end where she confronts her father with her determination to marry outside the faith.
I liked Sean Zimmerman considerably better as the radical student Perchik, Hodel’s suitor, than I did in the more macho role of Lt. Cable in South Pacific. He played this role with a winning combination of softness and intellectual fire that I appreciated. I didn’t feel I got enough “face time” with Andrew Eckert as Chava’s suitor Fyedka. Eckert impressed me with his quirky good looks and stage presence in the few scenes he was in. I understand recent revivals of Fiddler... have expanded Fyedka’s role to make him more of a “good guy” even though he is playing for the opposing team.
Stephen Bolte gives a nice, understated performance as Lazar Wolfe, the wealthy butcher who loses Tzeitel to a poor tailor. While I enjoyed his realistic approach, it presented another jarring juxtaposition to Shiles’ stand-up comedy Tevye, Dowling’s morbid Golde, and the perky Broadway-style performances rendered by the younger cast members.
Shook has choreographed this production and come up with some truly breathtaking full-cast numbers. Breathtaking because it seems impossible to get that many people, dancing that vigorously, on that little stage and have all of them still in one piece by the final curtain. As my son Brandon said to me, “I don’t know why they don’t all trip over each other and fall down in a heap.” I told him that that is the Magic of the Mac-Haydn, and it is a magic that Shook is expert at creating.
Really, this production is at its best in the group numbers. In translation “Fiddler…” is often known by the title Anatevka, the name of the village in which the show takes place. The obscure English title Fiddler on the Roof was inspired by a figure in Music, a wall panel Marc Chagall created for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1920. (After he left Russia in 1922, Chagall made a copy for himself called The Green Violinist.) Chagall’s art was a major influence on the creators of Fiddler... especially on the original set designer Boris Aronson. Stein has Tevye explain the title in the show’s opening lines:
“A fiddler on the roof...Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition!”
And of course, by the end of the show there is no more Anatevka and Tevye’s world is seriously off-balance.
Here Paul Flanagan plays Chagall’s fiddler with sweet verve. You can see below how nicely costume designer Cathleen Perry evokes Chagall’s work. Overall, she has given the show an appropriate look. Her work is “ethnic enough” to be evocative of another time and place.
This is the second set I have been impressed by at the Mac-Haydn this season. Set is really not the correct word, setting would be more appropriate. Robert Hamel has created a cock-eyed Chagallesque Anatevka skyline for the walls of the theatre, with little windows that light up during The Sabbath Prayer number to evoke the homely traditions of their occupants.
Fiddler on the Roof is a good family show, but be warned that it is long, and that children will need a little history lesson on the background of the plot and characters. If your kids can sit still for a nearly two-hour first act, by all means bring them. There are few musicals with deeper family values than this one.
Fiddler on the Roof runs through July 2 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006