‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater

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Fiddler on the Roof remains a musical theater audience pleaser, as it has been for five decades. The Arena Stage production is handsome and solid. Under Molly Smith’s direction, the Arena’s Fiddler has a traditional burnished reflective surface. I am sure that many in the audience were ready, willing and able to sing each word of each song. Certainly there were many a rapturous face seen as the production unfolded. That is a good thing; a very good thing.

Jonathan Hadary (Tevye). Photo by Margot Schulman.
Jonathan Hadary (Tevye). Photo by Margot Schulman.

The inhabitants of this fictional Fiddler still have their lives turned upside down by falling-in-love with someone unexpected, fighting against the oppression of age-old family and community mores, breaking-free from traditions that bind way too tightly, and the abhorrence of others, that becomes the physical ethnic cleansing of those who are different. These are universal matters, not specific to one time, place, cultural values, or religious faith.

As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Fiddler remains what Smith called it; a venerable “gold-standard” for audiences to enjoy. In her Fiddler program notes, Smith wrote  that “this musical demands to be reinterpreted for each generation.” She noted as well that “we live in a time when the world is cracking apart.” For Smith that makes Fiddler the right show for these times.

It is through a subtleness in casting, of the in-the-round artistic details that require new staging and new choreographic ideas and execution, as well as the overall awareness of what the show represents that puts a different stamp on this Fiddler. Thankfully, there was no bombastic star turn carried by some larger-than life celebrity. This is keen, ardent  theatrical work that represents  what Fiddler wants to say and still can, even in a world so very much different from 1964 when the musical first opened in New York City.

For those less familiar with Fiddler on the Roof  it is a musical loosely based upon the stories of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) with his everyman character Tevye, a poor milkman with five daughters and a tough-minded wife. The multi-Tony Award-winning musical has music by Jerry Bock with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (who attended the opening night at Arena) and book by Joseph Stein.

Fiddler takes place in an Eastern Europe in what is now geographically the Ukraine at the turn of the last century.The bigger wider world is advancing on the inhabitants of a little village called Anatevka. Strangers visit with new ideas, newspapers bring stories from beyond the confines of the village, isolation from the outside world is not so easy anymore. Local gossip and the printed word are the cable news of the day. Who is to be believed?

With the modern world comes changes to how a family lives its life, in ways big and small. Tevye, the Poppa, lives to keep tradition alive. In his mind it is tradition and a devotion to God Almighty that provides a safety net from the sharp infringements of what is out there in the real world just beyond the village. But for Tevye, his family and the villagers of Anatevka, the outside world can no longer be kept at bay. The world comes crashing down with consequences none could prepare for. How will these people survive?  That is the marvel of Fiddler: one cares and waits to see what will happen to these likable characters; no matter how many times the show has been seen.

With a cast of over 25, Smith’s artistic choices start with Tony nominee Jonathan Hadary. His Tevye is not a domineering, larger than life, gravely-voiced, gruff Poppa who pounds his way to force others to submit. Hadary has a softer, tender presence with a slight physical appearance and agreeable vocal style. His Pappa is a sensitive man, not a big bully. When confronted by his daughters’ new ways about love, he folds rather quickly. No seismic change is needed for his acceptance of his daughter’s new ways. Well, not mostly. He loves his daughters. He will stick by them. His paternal love overtakes the bounds of tradition and what the gossipers may say. And, even when he banishes one daughter from his life, there is less outright outrage, but an acceptance of her life style even if he cannot display outward approval. So, he provides a single, quickly uttered word to her. When Hadary complains to God, there is a sweetness about it;  with a timid little smile and a little wink at the end. Job he is not.

As Teyve’s wife Golde, Ann Arvia is another clear choice of subtleness. She possesses a vibrant, physical presence. She is no push-over for her husband. She respects him, but she will  not be dominated by him for very long. When Hadary and Arvia sing “Do You Love Me?” well your reviewer saw many a couple in the audience touch or cuddle just a bit closer. And so did your reviewer.

The musical score is especially upbeat, infectious, and lovingly rendered in Act I. Paul Sportelli’s music direction of a 10-member orchestra provides well-felt juxtaposition of a first act full of energy and brightness to a much darker and speedier Act II. Parker Esse’s restaging of the original choreography by Jerome Robbins was robust, energetic and fun to watch. And, of course, with the added complexity of keeping audiences in the round entertained. What audiences always remember, Act I’s the “Bottle Dance” as a line of black-hat men with bottles on their heads, or the Wedding scene, are done so that even the top rows of the Fichandler Stage were shaking in delight.

(L to R) Hannah Corneau (Hodel), Dorea Schmidt (Tzeitel), and Maria Rizzo (Chava). Photo by Margot Schulman.
(L to R) Hannah Corneau (Hodel), Dorea Schmidt (Tzeitel), and Maria Rizzo (Chava). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Strong work and lovely voices were easily spotted. These include the fictional daughterns; Dorea Schmidt (as Tzeitel) who falls in love with poor tailor (Johsua Morgan who is a spot-on timid, late to bloom Motel),  Hannah Corneau (as Hodel), who falls in love with a political radical (well played by Michael Vitaly Sazonov), and Maria Rizzo (as Chava) who marries a Russian Christian (sympathetically portrayed by Kurt Boehm)). Valerie Leonard is a pure total delight as Grandma Tzeitel, in a joyous, dream scene. The scene brought gasps of well-deserved enchantment from the audience. Chris Sizemore, as a Russian constable “just doing his job,” brought personality and notice to the character.

Todd Rosenthal’s in-the-round set is a construction of worn wood planks, with numerous entrance ramps, stairs, elevated risers and a well used center-stage area that contains its share of well-presented theatricality. The orchestra is hidden away except for Musical Director Sportelli. Props and set pieces come in with the actors doing the heavy lifting. The costumes from Paul Tazewell give off the weary lives and dusty place of the fictionalized characters. Fight Consultant David Leong had a number of scenes requiring some heavy work so that the many characters moving about would not actually hurt themselves; not so easy in the round either.

Alex Alferov (Fiddler). Photo by Margot Schulman.
Alex Alferov (Fiddler). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Special kudos to the production’s Fiddler himself, Alex Alferov. And a hearty “Yisha koach” (a hearty Mazel Tov!) to everyone involved in this moving production, which is guaranteed to shed so much nachas (joy) to every audience member who visits this special Anatevka.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Fiddler on the Roof plays through January 4, 2015, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater-1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at  (2o2) 488-3300, or purchase them online. 

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Fiddler on the Roof plays through January 4, 2015 at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater-1101 6th St SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Matchmaker! Matchmaker! Meet Tevye’s 5 Daughters at Arena Stage: Part 1: Dorea Schmidt.

Matchmaker! Matchmaker! Meet Tevye’s 5 Daughters at Arena Stage: Part 2: Maria Rizzo.