Meeting an old friend after a hiatus of 30+ years can be stressful (will we recognize each other?) and exciting (could we possibly just pick up right where we left off?).
Both of those emotions (and more) accompanied me to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s first hit of the 2013 season as the lights dimmed for Fiddler on the Roof.
When last we met, the venue was Childs Auditorium in Deep River, Ontario where I was conducting a two-weekend run of Jerry Bock’s musical realization of Joseph Stern’s inventive book (based on Tevye’s Daughters by Sholem Aleichem) and Sheldon Harnick’s knowing lyrics, which time and time again (right from the get-go as “Tradition” deftly sets the stage for the intergenerational drama ahead) spoke to universal truths.
How incredibly interesting it was to observe the end product rather than have one of the most active hands in creating it. When in the pit, the goal is to rekindle the best moments from the countless hours of rehearsals that go into every show. When in the critic’s chair, the idea is to compare the presentation to a lifetime of other performances (and not necessarily confining those comparisons to the work at hand, which is why no two reviewers can ever come to the same conclusions).
Quite unexpectedly, my first thoughts had virtually nothing to do with the music, dancing and staging, but with the narrative.
“It’s so Jewish,” I thought as Tevye (Scott Wentworth was superlative, carrying the show with the same dogged determination as his horseless milk cart) engaged in the first of many one-way conversations with his God (fancifully hanging above in the cloud thanks to Allen Moyer’s vision of paradise and Michael Walton’s heavenly lighting). “Where is the balance of a dissenting voice or disinterested description as to how Anatevka’s “chosen people” came to inhabit the small town in Russia in the first place?”
‘Lo those many years ago, the script mattered little compared to tempi, cues, dynamics, “vamp till ready”—voices, instruments, lights et cetera—and acoustics. What was being sung or said (beyond diction, intonation, support and phrasing) was far in the shadow of how everything came out. After all, it’s just a musical!
As uncomfortable as I was with the one-sided view of the world (which even now continues to systemically oppress the different among us—yet, who are us?) director/choreographer Donna Feore has combined all of the considerable talents at her disposal and come up with an audience pleaser that ought to require extra performances to fill the demand.
To a person, the cast is a collective marvel of characterization, wit, wisdom and style. The only weak link vocally stems from Kate Hennig’s emotion rich, tone-pitch weak songs as Golde. The stage burns bright for the first major ensemble, “To Life” then soars to the heights of excellence with the Wedding Dances. Quite rightly, the Bottle Boys were cheered with every well-balanced move and turn. “The Dream” was the visual tour de force, while the notion of long-suffering, unspoken love struck a chord when Tevye and Golde struggled purposely with the age-old question, “Do You Love Me?”
Apart from a trumpet that occasionally crackled rather than popped, the orchestra sounded grand (special kudos to Eugene Laskiewicz’s exemplary accordion interventions).
While all and sundry do end up “Far From the Home I Love,” it’s a journey few will want to miss. JWR