‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Damascus Theatre Company

“Without our traditions, life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” Those satiric words are spoken by Tevye (Brian Lyons-Burke), the narrator and main character of the enduringly popular Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. With book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Hartnick, Fiddler on the Roof is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem. The original production in 1964 garnered nine Tony Awards–including Best Musical—and Damascus Theatre Company’s glorious production continues the “tradition” of excellence.

Bella Zindash (Fiddler) and Brian Lyons-Burke (Tevye). Photo by Elli Swink.
Bella Zindash (Fiddler) and Brian Lyons-Burke (Tevye). Photo by Elli Swink.

The story takes place in 1905 in the fictitious village of Anatevka in Imperial Russia, which symbolizes one of the small, overcrowded towns in the so-called “Pale of Settlement” where Jews were forced to live. Life was hard in these Jewish towns, and poverty was commonplace. In addition, the Jews were subjected to periodic attacks of violence and vandalism known as “pogroms.” With such harsh conditions, it’s easy to understand why Tevye feels the need to strictly adhere to his traditions in order to make his life a little less precarious.

As the musical opens, Tevye and the ensemble explain some of those Jewish customs and the clearly defined roles of husbands, wives, sons, and daughters in the dazzling production number, “Tradition”. Tevye expects that he and his wife Golde (Angela Lorenzo-Thompson) will arrange their daughters’ marriages and the daughters will have no choice in the matter. As tradition requires, they consult a matchmaker, Yente (Ruth Orland), who has arranged for their oldest daughter Tzeitel (Alexandra Bunger-Pool) to marry the wealthy 62-year-old butcher Lazar Wolf (Bob Schwartz). Not surprisingly, Tzeitel has other ideas. She is in love with the poor, shy tailor Motel Kamzoil (Matt Kopp) and together the two young people finally convince Tevye to allow them to marry.

In order to save face with his wife, Tevye concocts an elaborate ruse to cover up his break with tradition. He pretends to wake from a nightmare which he describes in graphic detail to the somewhat superstitious Golde. Grandma Tzeitel, played to comic perfection by the ultra-talented B.J. Bergman Angstadt, comes back from the grave to bless the marriage of her namesake. But, the marriage she is blessing is to Motel Kamzoil, not to Lazar Wolf.  Then, Lazar Wolf’s deceased first wife Fruma Sarah (Kristina Friedgen) appears as a hulking, wicked witch—but a very funny one—who threatens reprisals if the young Tzeitel marries the butcher. Tevye’s scheme works, but he will still need to contend with his second-oldest daughter Hodel (Rachel Arbacher) falling in love with an impoverished revolutionary, as well as his third-oldest daughter Chava (Rachel Weisenthal) wanting to marry outside the faith.

Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, along with their younger sisters, Shprintze (Zoe Zindash) and Bielke (Abigail Aronne), are totally charming as they share their hopes and fears in the “Matchmaker” song.  Hodel and Chava have beautiful solos and Tzeitel is hilarious imitating Yente.

As Tevye, Brian Lyons-Burke is splendid in the role of a poor dairyman with strong religious faith who doesn’t understand why he couldn’t just as easily have been born wealthy. His rendition of the now legendary show tune, “If I Were a Rich Man” is rambunctiously entertaining and brings the house down.  His magnificent talent is also evident in the soulful and powerful ballad, “Chavela” as he paints a portrait of a father anguishing over what he sees as his daughter’s betrayal.

 Brian Lyons-Burke Tevye) and Angela Lorenzo-thompson (Golde). Photo by Elli Swink.
Brian Lyons-Burke Tevye) and Angela Lorenzo-thompson (Golde). Photo by Elli Swink.

Angela Lorenzo-Thompson shines as Tevye’s wife Golde, especially when she briefly sheds her relentless practicality and shows her romantic side as she joins her husband in singing, “Do You Love Me?” And, when Tevye and Golde combine to lead the company in the hauntingly beautiful waltz number, “Sunrise, Sunset,” it is a truly magical moment!

Another showstopper is “The Bottle Dance” at Tzeitel’s wedding.  Thanks to the artistic and skillful Choreographer Megan McNellage and her superb dancers, this challenging number is performed flawlessly.

In addition to the impressive ensemble, there are many notable individual performances. Bob Schwartz as Lazar Wolf has a rich, professional-quality voice; Justin Douds as Perchik is superb in a duet with Hodel singing, “Now I Have Everything”; Ruth Orland as Yente is a consummate comedienne; Rachel Arbacher as Hodel is stunning in “Far From the Home I Love” and Bella Zindash as the Fiddler performs lovely ballet and pantomime. The always entertaining Mara Bayewitz as Shaindel vividly illustrates the adage that “there are no small roles.”

The wonderfully creative Director Shelly Horn and the entire company combine to make the “Tevye’s Dream” sequence one of the funniest scenes in the show.  Carol Boyle’s costumes are appropriate and colorful and Set Designer Bill Brown cleverly conveys a surreal sense of time and place. Kudos to the talented Music Director Arielle Bayer who leads the singers and musicians in an exciting and unforgettable score.

Damascus Theatre Company’s production of Fiddler on the Roof is a delightful mélange of religious faith, family honor, romantic love, political history, beautiful songs, touching drama, hilarious comedy, and spectacular dance numbers. In short, this Fiddler on the Roof is a “miracle of miracles” and a theatre experience that is not to be missed!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Fiddler on the Roof plays through November 22, 2015 at Damascus Theatre Company, performing at Olney Theatre Company’s Historic Stage — 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door, or online.

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.