Thursday, July 25, 2013

Festival’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF will entertain many, but . . .

When Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock joined forces to write FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, now recognized as one of the greatest of American musicals, they did so in order to create an homage to their heritage.  A heritage which included hundreds of years of Jews in eastern Europe, whose life style and lives had been destroyed by pogroms (uprisings), forced evacuations, and ultimately by the “final solution,” the Holocaust. 

This was a life spent in the shtetels (villages) where they developed a culture of traditions, traditions which included the way they prayed, ate, dressed, did business, got married, and interacted not only with each other, but those non-Jews who controlled the politics of the regions.  They spoke Yiddish, a language that not only held words which carried their traditions, but had a spoken cadence that was identifiable. There was music (the haunting cantorial sound and Klemzer melodic beats), as well as literature, and artistic styles.

These traditions are the guts of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, for, as Tevya, the central character indicates, without these traditions these people had no guidelings for how to live their lives.

The musical is set in the tiny village of Anatevka, in Tsarist Russia, in 1905.  It is loosely based on TEVYE AND HIS DAUGHTERS, written by the Yiddish writer and humorist, Sholom Aleichem (which in Hebrew means “peace be with you).  The action centers on a poor milkman with five daughters and his attempts to maintain his religious and societal customs, while internal attitude changes and outside influences exert their control over his people.  His faith is challenged when his three older daughters break from the accustomed patterns and the Tsar evicts all the Jews from his village.

The story is carried through not only words, but significant and meaningful music and lyrics.  The score includes such classics as “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Now I Have Everything,” “Do You Love Me,” and “Far From the Home I Love.”

FIDDLER is a story of people, who, over many centuries, have fought to create an existence held together by their religion and way of life.  Therefore, any production of FIDDLER has to be steeped in the sounds and practices of those specific customs.  Unfortunately, the Stratford production, under the direction of Donna Feore, only hints of that.  It misses out on developing the cadence of the language, the beauty of some of the traditions, and even the pronunciation of the spoken Hebrew. 

Feore explains these choices in her program comments, “A Story That Speaks to Us All.”  Yes, as she states, Fiddler is about generalized human values, but, most importantly, as conceived by the writers, it is about a micro-Jewish society, not a universal society.  As such, there must be fidelity to the customs of that specific society.  If the director and the cast don’t understand those rituals, the foundation of the musical is lost. 

Feore goes on to say that, “FIDDLER’S vocabulary of movement must be consistent with the culture.”  She did that well in the dance numbers, but missed in the real vocabulary, the spoken vocabulary and the vocabulary of customs.

On the positive side, the three older daughters, as portrayed by Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French and Kelly Hutton sing well and develop clear and believable characterizations.  André Morin and Mike Nadajewski, both of whom have nice singing voices, are excellent as Motel and Perchik.

The choreography, the orchestration and the set, complete with visual reference to famous Jewish painter, Marc Chagall’s symbolic flying figures, is excellent.

Scott Wentworth, though he feigns the movements and the sounds, doesn’t succeed in creating a real Tevya.  He doesn’t seem to have the life experiences, nor has he been properly directed, to develop the needed vocal cadence, Tevye’s hand and body movements which are based on keeping time with the cantorial music, nor the bend at the knees and twisting movement commonly done while praying.  In addition, at times, rather than displaying the underlying wonder of the character, who even when pontificating is a well intentioned man, resorts to angry shouting.   This is not Sholem Alcheim’s Tevya.

Barbara Fulton, an understudy for Golda, misses the qualities that underlie the woman’s loving nagging, the very essence of the “Yiddisha” momma.  She has none of the required sound cadence. 

Gabrielle Jones’s misguided attempts at a “Jewish accent,” is more mocking than real.  Why is Paul Nolan (Fyedka), the only Russian with a heavy accent? 

One must wonder why the usually emotionally laden “Sabbath Prayer,” besides being expressively flat, did not portray the community coming together illustrating the traditional religious belief present in all of the village.  Why are traditional Jews entering and leaving places of habitation without kissing the doorframe mezuzah?  Why are the married women not wearing shaytles (wigs)? Why is the beloved rabbi being played like a fool, to garner laughs, rather than a delightful character.  The questions could go on and on.

Capsule judgement:  Those who are unfamiliar with real Eastern European Yiddish/Jewish traditions, will find Stratford’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF to be an acceptable, maybe even a delightful experience.  Those who know the customs should be outraged by Feore’s tradition-light approach with her attempt to make the woes of Anatevka and the annihilation of Eastern Europe Jewry, into a universal story.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF runs through October 20, 2013 at the Stratford Festival.  For information and tickets call or go to: For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to