Review: Fiddler on the Roof

(Canon Theatre: Toronto, December 22, 2009)

Producing a well-loved musical like Fiddler on the Roof must be an intimidating gamble: yes, you are going to have big crowds and a full theatre, but you are also going to have big expectations to fulfill! This particular production at the Canon Theatre in Toronto was uneven – the coin toss wobbled.

The show was directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes and featured Harvey Fierstein as the inimitable milkman, Tevye. Fierstein has an enviable list of credits which include stage, film, and television. He had a role in Mrs. Doubtfire (as the hairdresser, I’m told) and was the voice of Homer Simpson’s executive secretary on The Simpsons. He has written and performed in many of his own plays and received a plethora of prestigious awards. The programme lists Fierstein as only the second person in history to win Tonys in four different categories.

The character of Tevye is defined, however, by the classic achievement of Topol in the movie version of Fiddler. Regardless of his reputation and experience, Fierstein’s portrayal did not even come close. His lack of physical stature was my first impression. The large traditional stage of the Canon Theatre dwarfed him. His smallish presence was exacerbated by the distinguished height of Lazar Wolf and also by the full-bodied figure of Golde. Unfortunately, his voice did not compensate. That, potentially, could have made the difference. In fact, Fierstein’s voice consistently rose to a high-pitched cartoonish caricature, and, although that worked for some of the comedic lines, it was not balanced with the full, rich, masculine tone required to lend pathos and dignity to Tevye’s character.  When he dug for a gruff lower pitch, it was muffled. On occasion, the orchestra overpowered his singing. His dancing lacked energy and conviction. I was disappointed.

On the other hand (sly grin, here), there were a few stellar moments. The anguished exchange between Tevye and Chava when she informs her father that she is in love with Fyedka produced palpable silence in the theatre. Later, as Tevye dares to complain to God, his defiance is punctuated with tightly-coiled physicality. Alone on stage, assuming a grounded, wide-legged stance, pushing out his chest and ample belly, arms akimbo and fists clenched, Tevye faces the audience, but looks up. He is simultaneously puny and heroic. The confrontation had a Job-like credibility.

David Brummel played Lazar Wolf in this production. Unlike Fierstein’s, his voice commanded attention. He has also played the role of Tevye in five different productions. I would have loved to see and hear his version of the iconic milkman. His vocals were powerful and soared effortlessly to the stratosphere.    

The young people did very well. Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Perchik and Motel the Tailor performed admirably, particularly Motel, who was winsome as the shy and nervous suitor “sans matchmaker”. His Miracle of Miracles solo balanced a lovable geekiness with new-found virility in a very natural and unaffected way.  Golde and Yente, alas, were predictable and a lack of chemistry kept their dialogue stilted and the humour forced. And the fiddler on the roof himself?  Just right, a nimble and engaging jester.

The staging of the play, like the acting, was uneven. A couple of scenes reached the zenith and others fell flat. The best scene was the Sabbath Prayer. Twilight falls. Tevye and Golde and their family and guests light the menorah and start to sing the blessing. Darkness envelops the stage until you see only their faces in the halo of candlelight. Then, on various levels, with just the hint of roofs and chimneys hanging in the air, the homes of other Jewish families are slowly revealed.

Successively, the faithful also light their candles and join in the singing. The close-knit community of Anatevka is tenderly evoked in the flickering flames that illuminate each family at prayer. It was mesmerizing, like walking up a mountain road at night and peering into all the glowing windows to witness the same holy scene over and over. As perfect a moment as any I have experienced in a staged performance.

I thought of this masterful scene later when Tevye and his Jewish family and friends are evicted from Anatevka. Only five cast members sing Anatevka, the plaintive and haunting lament about the loss of one’s homeplace … Tevye, Golde, Yente, and two others. It felt utterly wrong. Here was the perfect moment to showcase that whole community again, to highlight the depth of the injustice, not to just a few individuals, but to an entire village. I expected to hear many voices gathered in mourning, a swelling of grief. Instead, the potential of this scene to parallel the Sabbath Prayer scene was ignored.  Stripped of communal significance, both the scene and the song fizzled.

 The community does receive a nod at the conclusion of the play as the villagers gather for a trek around the stage on their way to their new homes. No doubt the symbolic trundling around the bare stage was intended to be melancholy, but it was a bare-bones scene that lacked sympathetic cohesiveness. The opportunity in the previous scene to remind the audience of the deep connectedness of these friends and neighbours has been wasted.  The villagers wander in single file, isolated not only from one another, but also from the audience. Had they held hands, or embraced and clung to one another, reluctant to part, there would have been more emotional depth to the circling. As it was, it was a strangely detached denouement. The scene was saved, in the end, only by the fiddler, who added a note of grace with his stylized prancing behind the caravan, playing familiar strains to bless the disparate journeys of these refugees.

Not only the fiddler’s lively mincing, but all of the choreography and dancing in the play deserves praise. It was top-notch, entertaining when it needed to be, but thoughtful, too. In the bar scene, as Tevye and Lazar Wolf and their friends celebrate the “match” with a traditional Jewish dance, they are soon joined by the Russian soldiers who ply their Cossack acrobatics in and around and through the Jewish dancers. What starts off as  seriously competitive male strutting evolves into a dizzying whirl of high energy dance cooperation. The heady melding of the two dance styles brings smiles to the faces of the participants, both Jewish and Russian. A dynamic harmony is achieved on stage for a brief moment. This dazzling dance sequence manages to portray the relative stability of Anatevka before the imminent pogrom and also offers an exuberantly hopeful vignette, suggesting that perhaps someday, somewhere, this joyous plaiting of differences might indeed be a reality and not just a temporary playful accident.

The dancing at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel was equally compelling. The bottle dancers were the best I have ever seen. With their long-tailed jackets and tall top hats accentuating every linear movement, the dancers achieved balletic precision – symmetrical, fluid and stunningly elegant.

The unevenness of the production shows up again, though, in the fight scene during the wedding reception. A few Russians run onstage, presumably to wreak havoc, but there are altogether too few of them, they are not easily identifiable by uniform or costume, and the action is skimpy and poorly executed. A couple of tables are overturned, Perchik is scarcely roughed up, and, in a few seconds, it is all over. What? A politically correct skirmish – no violence, no harm, no foul? This trifling scuffle diminished the play’s historicity. I expected a far more brutal and believable attack. It should have been a shocker, the thin-skinned status quo of Anatevka ripped away in an instant, its racist loathsome underbelly exposed to all. But it was barely a barroom brawl.

The story of Tevye, the Everyman believer, is one that resonates deeply with people of faith. And the story of Tevye, the little guy, downtrodden, but not defeated, still speaks to the lowly.  I will gladly take any opportunity to re-live his narrative, to hear his music, to marvel at his dancing, and witness the vibrancy of his faith and life. The standing ovation goes to the original author, Sholem Aleichem, who gave Tevye (and us) a voice for all time. 

So, those are some of my reactions, for what they are worth… a ruble, a shekel, a wooden nickel.  You decide.

 To Mr. Feirstein, probably not worth a fig.   🙂

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