Monday, September 28, 2009

Fiddler on the Roof

Beck’s FIDDLER is white bread, not challah

‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,’ now in production at Beck Center, is one of those perfect musicals. Based on a meaningful story, with a pointed message, it contains memorable music, vivid characters, and perfectly fits the model for the well-made musical. The music, dance and script all meld into a combination that, no matter the production level, audience’s like.

‘FIDDLER’ is based on a compilation of Yiddish humorist and story-teller Sholem Aleichem’s stories, including “Tevye and his Daughters.”

It is 1905, and life for Jews in the fictional “shtettle” (village) of Anatevka, someplace in the Russia-Polish pale, is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof; yet, through their traditions, the villagers endure.

Yes, traditions. Traditions that for generations have told Jews how to live, including what to eat, what to wear, who should marry who and how to live the righteous life. It has been those traditions that have held the Jewish people together in the great Diaspora, which spread them across the world after being expelled from Palestine. It is still the thread that holds Jews together, whether pious believers or not.

We meet Tevye, a poor milkman, who has five daughters, and not enough dowry to match them with the cream of Anatevka’s men. Tevye tries to uphold the traditions to the best of his ability, but the times are changing and the old ways of doing things come under repeated questioning. Will he remain steadfast or bend or even break?

With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, when ‘Fiddler’ had its first out-of-town try-out in Detroit, there was debate over whether the show would ever have the mass appeal to make it to Broadway. How wrong were a reviewers who predicted a quick open and close on the Great White Way. The show opened on September 22, 1964, ran until July 2, 1972, logged over 3000 performances, and set a record as the longest running musical. A record which stood for ten years.

The original production starred Zero Mostel, Beatrice Arthur , Bert Convy, Julia Migenes, and later, Bette Midler.

In Jewish tradition, the challa, an egg-twist bread is eaten on the Sabbath. It, unlike white bread, has a special “tam” (taste). Both nourish, but one has a special purpose and pleases more than the other.

Beck’s production, under the direction of Paul Gurgol, though serviceable, is missing the “tam.” There is a cadence to Yiddish speech, there is an indefinable spirit that underlies the likes of Tevya and his fellow villagers, there is a vibrancy to living the traditions, in spite of the limitations that it places on life. That’s what is missing in the Lakewood production.

This is not to say that audience’s won’t like it. As witnessed by the near standing ovation the night I saw the show, the Beck audience will eat up what they see and hear. But, of course, many haven’t been brought up with the tradition and the “tam” and won’t miss it. White bread is fulfilling enough.

Many of the traditions are included. The mezuzah, a piece of parchment in a decorative case inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah and placed on door frames are kissed upon entering buildings, the males wear “tsitsahs” (the fringe on prayer shawls) and cover their heads at all times. Tzeitel and Motel get married under a “chupah” (marriage canopy) and the symbolic stomping on a glass is done by the groom.

However, mistakes in Orthodox tradition run rampant. Major among the blunders is the scene in which men and women mingle together in a Jewish bar and eventually dance together. No, no, no! The women wear “shaetles” (wigs) in the wedding scene but, they should have been wearing them throughout. The wigs are not dress-up accessories, they are part of Bibical commandments. Motel’s costume during the wedding was incorrect. He needed to be wearing a “kittel’, a white robe. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Why all the emphasis on the exactness needed to make the production authentic? It is the obligation of a director, choreographer and costumer to research the traditions of a culture in order to produce a play about that culture. There were just too many flaws caused by their lack of knowledge.

As for the cast. George Roth gives his own twist to Tevya. This is not a Zero Mostel imitation. There are times when his cadence gets off, when he loses the characterization, but in general, Roth is on course. Adina Bloom gets the singing right, but her Golda lacks the motherly warmth which has to be the underbelly behind the shrillness. She should nag, but nag with love. “Do You Love Me,” as performed by Roth and Bloom is charming.

Tim Allen, (Motel the tailor), Kyle Downing (Perchik, the revolutionary) and Andy Weyenerg (Fyedka, the Russian who falls in love with Chava, one of Tevya’s daughters) are all excellent. Morgan Greene (Tzeitel), Patricia O’Toole (Hodel) and Dani Apple (Chava) are good as the oldest daughters. Amiee Collier’s vocals gives the dream sequence a special tone.

Lisa Lock’s choreography goes wanting. Most of the dancing was walking and stepping in time to the music. With few exceptions, she appears to have been blessed with a cast that is dance –ability deprived, but even so, there are ways of getting around that.

Russ Borski’s set is quite clever. His use of walls of blooming flowers and living corn stalks, which transform to dead growth, is an excellent device to show the changes of seasons. The rest of the many settings are nicely handled by multi-sided buildings on moving platforms.

Larry Goodpaster’s musical direction was excellent. His orchestra underscored the singers, allowing for the words to the glorious score to be heard.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ is a serviceable production. Much too white bread for my taste, but I’m not the only one eating, and many of those who are, will probably like the staging.