- Book by Joseph Stein
- Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
- Directed by John Vreeke
- Produced by Olney Theatre Center
- Reviewed by Gary McMillan
For those who have not seen a stage or the screen production of Fiddler or read the writings of Sholem Aleichem (which served as source material), Fiddler on the Roof is set in czarist Russia. It is a time of rapid and turbulent change, both political and social. In lofty terms, it’s about the transition from tradition society to modernity, and about forms of oppression (political, patriarchal, religious, and ethnic). In everyday terms, it’s about people struggling with family obligations, personal desires, and interpersonal conflicts while the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.
In the sleepy village of Anatevka, patriarch Tevya peddles milk and cheese throughout the region to keep a roof over his family’s head (and under the symbolic fiddler’s feet). He’s a man of deep faith who wishes he had unlimited time to study scripture and commune with God. But he is the father of five daughters, three of marriageable age, and husband to a wife, earthy and practical, who is ambitious for the future wellbeing of her girls. Meager dowries do not bode well for prosperous matches. In a world of pogroms (racial/religious-inspired mass violence and persecution), traditional values and family affections are tested to their core.
Olney’s Fiddler blends these heady themes masterfully in a warm and witty production that is a sure bet for a family holiday outing. It does real justice to Bock and Harnick’s much lauded score. The spare but elegant set design by Jon Savage provides an understated background which Charlie Morrison’s lighting design stunningly complements. With Howard Vincent Kurtz’s impressive costumes, set, lighting and costumes successfully establish the perfect atmosphere and sense of place. I’m somewhat over minimalist (single set) productions, but at least director John Vreeke doesn’t have Tevye playing tuba and Golde on clarinet. Seriously, though, this production has an elegance that is as deceptively simple as it is artistically accomplished.
Eschewing the traditional overture, unusual when the show opened on Broadway in 1964, the show begins with the stirring song “Tradition,” which introduces the huge cast of characters in the context of their roles in family and society as well as their values and aspirations. Followed in swift succession by two more standards (“Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man”), Vreeke’s direction will likely have you sitting on the edge of your seat with the tremendous vitality of this production. Old warhorse musicals such as Fiddler are often presented in a plodding, museum-piece manner. Not so here. [Special note to parents: There were many, many children at the matinee I attended and they were spellbound and silent. Please use Olney’s online background materials to prepare your youngsters for the show.]
The artistic finesse of this production is more than matched by a dream cast. Rick Foucheux is an extremely charismatic Tevya. His acting is a solid 11 out of 10 points. Some might quibble that his singing occasionally falters, but I think that he’s leagues ahead of the usual suspects (i.e., Zero Mostel and Harvey Fierstein). Foucheux has heart to spare (if the voice breaks, it’s the emotion). The man has received seven Helen Hayes award nominations since 2000 (with wins for Edmond and Take Me Out).
His Golde, Sherri Edelen, is our local treasure. I find it hard to believe that she has only five Helen Hayes award nominations under her belt (with a lead actress win for Side Show). Edelen is a brilliant actress (breathtaking in The Swan at Rep Stage, among other dramatic performances) with a voice and “Broadway belt” that sets her apart as a major DC diva (her solo performance of “Tell Me on a Sunday” at Signature Theatre was an acting and vocal tour de force). I waited on line for 5 or 6 hours to see her first Helen Hayes nominated role in Assassins back when she performed with the fledgling Signature Theatre.
The supporting cast, primarily daughters and suitors, is also choice.
If you’ve never seen Fiddler, see it now at Olney. If you’ve seen another live Fiddler production, see this incredible production.
- Running time: 2:45 with 1 intermission
- When: thru December 30
- Where: Olney Theatre Center, 200 Sandy Spring Rd, Olney, MD
- Tickets: $25-$46. Children, 1/2 off
- Info: 301 924-3400 or visit the website.