Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964. As it was being developed, and even after it opened, the production team wondered whether this show about Jews in a shetl in 1901 would be received by broader audiences. It had an incredibly long run time (just under 3 hours), and unlike most shows, had a decidedly unhappy ending. Yet the show went on to have a long run on Broadway, long runs on tour, and world-wide acceptance. The story of an oppressed people, being forced out of a country for political reasons, resonated with many for some reason. The difficulty of adapting to changing traditions was also a touchsone.
In the 55 years since, one might have hoped that the xenophobia and antisemitism seen in the show might have abated somewhat. But it hasn’t. We’ve seen antisemitism on the rise here in the US; we’ve certainly seen fear of the immigrant and their practices. In Russia, antisemitism is still rampant, and it is increasing throughout the world. More and more countries hate the immigrant, and that seems to be especially true of the Muslim. Fear of people based on their religion seems quite common (and yet, perhaps the religion we should fear due to the intolerance from its purported practitioners, is universally present in American culture … but I digress). So the story of Fiddler on the Roof is still relevant today; still that cautionary tale.
I have been familiar with Fiddler on the Roof all my life, but I can’t recall having seen it on stage before. I know I saw the 1971 movie when it came out; I might have seen it in 1974 at the LA Civic Light Opera (but I’m not sure). I know it was my wife’s first live theatre — she saw it in 1969 when it made its second visit to the LA CLO. But Fiddler has, in many ways, been part of my DNA. My grandfather came from Vitebsk in the Pale of Settlement; this is the same area about which Sholom Aleichem wrote. He came over as a poor tailor. His wife’s father was the one son in a family of 12. There are similarities in the story. So this could easily have been my family’s story.
I’ll note that we saw Fiddler on the 2nd night of Passover. This made for some cognitive dissonance, especially as they broke and shared Challah for Shabbat. There was something odd about Jews sharing chometz on stage during Passover. I’m glad we didn’t go Friday night; just imagine how much the cast had to swing in for the first night of Passover (although perhaps they did an early Seder for the cast backstage). There should be something in the contract for Fiddler about performing on Jewish holy days.
Speaking about contracts, I should note one thing before I go into the story and my assessment of the production: There’s an interesting omission in the Playbill for the show. I suspected it when I saw the tiny merch cart; I became more suspicious when I saw no photo backdrop for the show. I was also suspicious reading the cast bios in the program: there were no callouts to AEA and precious little Broadway experience. The program confirmed: this is a non-Equity tour. I don’t personally have a problem with that: I see non-Equity talent all the time in Los Angeles and it is often superb. Talent has to get a start somewhere, and a non-Equity tour provides great experience and a stepping stone to the Equity world. But I do think audiences should go in aware. I am pleased to say that I saw no evidence of weak or poor talent in this production, although some performers were a little young for their roles. But that happens these days in Equity tours as well.
For those unfamiliar with Fiddler on the Roof: Have you been living under a rock? But seriously: Fiddler is based on the “Tevye and his Daughters” stories by the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem; they were adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein, and supplemented the classic words of Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock. They tell the story of a small village in Russia in 1901 called Anatevka (probably in the Pale of Settlement, as that was the only portion of Russia where Jews were permitted to live). This was the typical town of the time with a very poor and traditional Jewish population; administered by a Russian Christian population. The town life was infused with Jewish tradition and practice. The story concerns Tevye, a milkman; Golde, his wife; and his five daughters: Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze, and Bielke. As the story goes on, each of the older three daughters finds a future husband — each going further and further outside of the traditional ways. Tzeitel chooses her husband without her father’s help, after a marriage was arranged for her. Hodel falls in love with a poor student who is sent to Siberia, and doesn’t ask her father’s permission at all. Chava falls in love with a Russian Christian soldier, and is married in a Church. In parallel to this, the outside world intrudes through pogrums, and the eventual edict that ejects the Jews from their homes and sends them on the path to new homes in places like Poland, Eretz Yisroel, and America. One wonders if they will find acceptance in America? Good thing this was the early 1900s and not today.
The music in Fiddler is iconic, and resulted in many tunes that entered the popular songbook: Sabbath Prayer, If I Were a Rich Man, and Sunrise Sunset, to name a few. This production added back a song that was cut during the original run: “The Rumor”.
This production was based on the 2015 Broadway Revival that starred Danny Burstein. I’ll note that production also featured Adam Kantor, who originated the role of Motel in the revival. Adam studied for his role by going on the Yiddishkayt tour of Belarus, Latvia, and Lithuania in the summer before the production. Also on that tour: my daughter, who is a Yiddish scholar working on her PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I wonder how much of the lessons learned from Yiddishkayt made it to what we saw on the Pantages stage?
So let’s start with what I didn’t like about this production, which was remarkably little (I’ll touch on the individual actors later) :
- This production used an odd framing device: The actor playing Teyve walks onstage in a modern red puffy jacket, starts reading a book at what is ostensibly a train station in Russia. He then takes off the jacket and then become Tevye. At the end of the show, he puts back on the jacket and is modern again, and is finishing the book. That’s all the explanation there is. I didn’t see the point of it. If you are going to frame the story, do it for a purpose. Show explicitly that this is someone studying his past, and show what he learned from it. As it is now, this is meaningless and adds nothing. In fact, it takes away something, for now there is no overture.
- The show was plagued with sound problems, in the form of crackling microphones and occasional drops of character amplification. Sound engineers: You’re supposed to test this stuff before the first run. Even with a non-Equity cast, there have been enough earlier tour stops to work out performance interactions with the microphones. This isn’t rocket science, folks.
- I was not enamored of their conception of the dream sequence: it came across as too Kabuki for me, and the droopy breasts of the costume for Grandmother Tzeitel were comical to the point of distraction. Bad design choice.
- In general the costumes were good, but there were a few men who were missing their tzitzit. Yes, there are those of us who notice those details. I did notice that the production did use books with Hebrew or Yiddish on their covers, and for the wedding sequence, an actual tallit (I could read the wimple).
As I said, surprisingly little on the poor side. On the other hand, there was lots to like about this production. I was particularly enamored of the female ensemble: watching their reactions during scenes such as the bottle dance was priceless. Tevye’s daughters were also very strong, and Tevye himself (modulo the Israeli accent) gave a great performance. They seemed to get the customs right, and were believable in their practice and emotions. Kudos to the Associate Director, Sari Ketter, who implemented the vision on tour of the revival director, Bartlett Sher (FB). I’m calling her out for extra kudos because she did a wonderful job with the non-Equity cast, bringing out a spectacular performance from the entire team; Sher had the luxury of working with Equity folk. The choreography for this version of the show was by Hofesh Shechter of the Batsheva Dance Company (note that the fellow playing Tevye was also a member of that company); it was recreated by Associate Choreographer Christopher Evans. I found the dances in this show to be strong: especially those in the opening number, the “L’Chaim” sequence, and in the Wedding Sequence. Other sequences were more movement than full-on dance. It is unknown the extent to which Jerome Robbins‘ original direction and choreography remained in the show. Overall, it was a very enjoyable show.
Turning to the performances themselves: in the lead position was Yehezkel Lazarov (FB) as Tevye. In the history of Tevye’s there have been those who overshadowed the role and made their personality the focus — both Zero Mostel and Topol were guilty of this on the stage. Others made the character the center, such as Herschel Bernardi. Recent revivals have featured Alfred Molina (no, just no) and Danny Burstein. Lazarov was strong as Tevye, but at times his Israeli accent took center, which impacted the belief that we were in Russia. Other than that, his singing was strong and he had a great playfulness with the role without being overpowering. He portrayed a strong relationship with his daughters and wife, and came across believable on stage. I thought he was good in the role, but perhaps a bit young.
Maite Uzal (⭐FB, FB)’s Golde definitely came across as too young for the role, although again it would be believable for married at age 16. Still, she gave a strong performance and handled her numbers well. Watch her face, particularly during the dream sequence and the “Do You Love Me?” number. She is quite fun to watch.
Where this production shined was in the casting for the three oldest daughter of Tevye: Mel Weyn (FB) as Tzeitel, Ruthy Froch (FB) as Hodel, and Natalie Powers (FB) as Chava. They were all super strong singers with lovely voices, in particular Weyn and Froch. But their faces, oy their faces. Just watch them as they listen and react to the other actors; watch them during the wedding sequence. Their joy and delight and performances made this production really special. Tevye’s two youngest daughters: Danielle Allen (FB) as Shrprintze and Emerson “Emmy” Glick (FB) as Bielke had much smaller roles and didn’t get the chance to individually show their vocal talents, but they were equally fun to watch in the facial expression and movement department.
Jesse Weil (FB) as Motel has the advantage of playing the best characterized of the daughter’s suitors. He captures the timidness of the character well, and does a great job of portraying the character growth into a man. He does a strong job on “Miracle of Miracles”. The other suitor we get to know well is Ryne Nardecchia (FB)’s Perchik, Hodel’s suitor. He has a lovely number in “Now I Have Everything”, and he has a great interaction with Froch’s Hodel. Chava’s suitor, Joshua Logan Alexander (FB) as Fyedka, is not given the chance in the script to develop a personality other than “Russian Soldier”, nor does he get a song of his own. He does seem to interact well with Powers’ Chava.
This brings us to the two remaining characters who have someone significant personalities of their own: Carol Beaugard (FB)’s Yente, and Jonathan Von Mering (FB)’s Lazer Wolf. Beaugard (who I hadn’t know was big in the Bluegrass community) is a bit too young for Yente, but she covers it up well and captures the character adequately. She starts one major number, but is strong in her early scene with Golde and her later scene at the end. Von Mering’s Lazer Wolf is stronger in a sense: he gets some good stage time in L’Chaim; he also has some good scenes during the wedding and at the end. He was fun to watch.
This brings us to the ensemble, which covers the dancers, background performers, and those whose ensemble tracks also cover smaller character roles. I’d like to start with the female ensemble first (character tracks as noted): Eloise Deluca (FB) Villager, Co-Dance Captain; Olivia Gjurich (FB) Villager, Fruma-Sarah; Carolyn Keller (FB) Villager, Grandma Tzeitel, Shaindel; Kelly Gabrielle Murphy (FB) Villager, Rivka; Lynda Senisi (FB) Villager; Britte Steele (FB) Villager, Mirala. Let’s start out by saying I love this ensemble. I don’t normally highlight the ensemble, because often their personality does not shine through. But watch these young women in the background during the wedding sequence: their joy and fun is infectious, and you don’t know whether to watch the dancers or the ensemble. They were spectacular. In terms of character highlights: I wasn’t that enamored of the dream sequence in terms of its design and the kabuki-style masks, although Keller’s Tzeitel had a wonderfully strong voice.
The male ensemble got the stronger side of the dance equation, both in the L’Chaim sequence and in the Wedding sequence. The male ensemble consisted of: Danny Arnold (⭐FB, FB) Villager, Mordcha; Eric Mitchell Berey (FB) Villager, Nachum, Yussel; Derek Ege (FB) Villager; Michael Hegarty (FB) Villager, Rabbi; Paul Morland (FB) Villager, Fiddler; Jacob Nahor (FB) Villager; Jack O’Brien (FB) Villager, Sasha; Honza Pelichovsky (FB) Villager; Nick Siccone (FB) Villager, Mendel; and Brian Silver (FB) Villager, Avrum. The male ensemble is less focused on the acting side of the equation, and much more so on the dance side. Their acting is stereotypical Jewish prayer behavior, shuking and such. They don’t have as much to react to, given the nature of the story. But where they excel is in dance. The bottle dancers were particularly spectacular, but the Russian dancers in the L’Chaim sequence were also quite strong. In terms of character roles, there are a few worth noting: Morland’s Fiddler was strong musically, and fun to watch in the background. I also liked Hegarty’s Rabbi, particularly in the Wedding Dance and closing sequences.
Before I turn to the members of the orchestra, I must highlight the excellent orchestrations, incidental music, and dance arrangements. These are things you don’t notice in the movie version, and they were really really good. Kudos to Ted Sperling (FB) Music Supervisor and New Orchestrations; and Oran Eldor (FB) Dance Arrangements. Michael Uselmann (FB) served as Music Director and Conductor of the orchestra, assisted by Jonathan Marro (FB). The orchestra consisted of (there was no indication of whom in the orchestra was local or not, but some folks are local regulars indicated by 🌴): 🌴 Paul Cartwright (FB) Violin, Concertmaster; 🌴 Richard Mitchell Flute, Piccolo, Alto Flute, Clarinet; 🌴 Jeff Driskill (FB) Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, E-Flat Clarinet; 🌴 Michael Stever (FB) Trumpet; 🌴 Charlie Morillas (FB) Trombone, Euphonium; 🌴 Mike Bolger (FB) Accordion, Synth; 🌴 Brian LaFontaine (FB) Guitars (Acoustin, Mandolin, Hollow Body Archtop Electric); 🌴 Nate Light (FB) String Bass; 🌴 Bruce Carver Drums, Percussion; 🌴 Alby Potts (FB) Keyboard. Other music related positions: 🌴 Eric Heinly (FB) Orchestra Contractor; John Mezzio (FB) Music Coordinator.; Balint Varga (FB) Music Copying. Note that this is the first time, at the Pantages, that I’ve seen the entire orchestra be local talent. They were great, but we have great local talent in Los Angeles. That means I cannot vouch for the quality of the music in other cities.
Finally, the production and other creative aspects of the show. This, in some ways, is where is non-Equity tour is likely to show its bones. Although elements from the Broadway production can be obtained, the desire to cut costs cuts the number of trucks that can carry scenery. Michael Yeargan (FB)’s scenic design was good for the scenes at Tevye’s home and barn, and for Motel’s shop. The opening scene was a bit more devoid of scenery than I might like, and it lacked the most important thing: there was no roof for the Fiddler! Overall, although the scenery worked, it could use a tad more oomph. I particularly did not like the scenic design for the dream sequence. Catherine Zuber‘s costumes worked for the most part, modulo the dream sequence masks, except some tzitzit were missing from the undergarments. Kathy Fabian‘s props were good, and I particularly liked the realistic touches of using Yiddish books, real tallit with wimpels, and a seemingly real Torah at the end (although I’m sure there were no actual scrolls — if there are, their insurance and practices better be good). Tom Watson‘s hair and wig design worked well and was believable; Tommy Kurzman‘s makeup was not overdone (except for the noted dream sequence problems). Scott Lehrer‘s sound design was mostly great in the design, but there was some execution crackling. Donald Holder‘s lighting worked well to establish mood and place. Lastly, Kristin Flanders‘s dialect coaching mostly worked, but she needs to work with the lead a bit more to transform the Israeli accent into a more Russian or Yiddish accent. Rounding out the production team: Jason Styres, CSA (FB) Casting; BH Barry (FB) Fight Director; Shelby Stark (FB) Production Stage Manager; Kelsey Clark (FB) Asst. Stage Manager; Christopher T.P. Holman (FB) Company Manager; Mackenzie Douglas (FB) Asst. Company Manager; Networks Presentations (FB) General Manager.
Fiddler on the Roof continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through May 5, 2019. Even though this was a non-Equity tour, the performances were strong and we enjoyed the production quite a bit. It is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the Pantages box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar (it visits San Jose next) or TodayTix.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Next weekend is interesting, as my wife is having a small procedure during the week. Saturday will bring In The Heights at the LA Pierce College Theater (FB) (featuring a performer we saw at REP), but for me alone. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB). May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring!
June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). I’m just starting to wade through the list of 343 shows, but I already see some I want to see, including The Seven Year Itch, [title of show], and the return of Tabletop: The Musical. Right now, I’ve got about 30 shows in the schedule, so I expect to pair things down as I see ticket prices and the schedule shapes up. If you are producing or in a show and you want me to see it, now is the time to get me your information — especially any discount codes. I hope to post a preliminary schedule in the next week or so.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.