It’s easy to become jaded in the theater. I see it all the time. Actors who have played the same part one too many times; critics who have seen the same productions of the same plays one hundred too many times. Fiddler on the Roof is a perfect example of one of these plays. The play is done to death by every high school, community theater, and every midsize theater with even a modest Jewish subscriber base.
It is often a mangled mess with an incongruously youthful Tevye that is merely a cheap imitation of the classic movie starring Topol. If you haven’t seen the film, it is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video, but I would encourage you instead to go to Arena Stage to see one of the more amazing productions of the play.
The escape velocity from that film is a huge barrier to overcome and comparison between any stage production and the film is unavoidable. And until I saw Arena Stage’s production of Fiddler, I had never seen a production that really stood up to the comparison.
Sure, Arena’s Fiddler borrowed elements from the film, but director Molly Smith found ways of emphasizing truly theatrical moments to create an experience that was new, but, at the same time, fit like an old shoe. Here Arena Stage and Molly Smith have taken one of the most classic musicals of the 20th Century and given it a new staging that could melt the heart of even the most jaded critic.
The power of the production starts with the set, smartly designed for the Fichandler’s classic theater-in-the-round by Todd Rosenthal. The grayed boards of the stage are in places inset away from the audience, giving the impression of a raised island and emphasizing the separation of the shtetl of Anatevka from the outside world. Cleverly, the set maintains plenty of open space for the large dance numbers that Fiddler is known for, but also uses a large trap and a raised space in front of a vom to ensure a variety of levels. The space is crowned with a spiral of planks, not only acting as the eponymous roof, but also as the focus point for Tevye’s many talks with God and symbolically as a swirling storm cloud of coming changes. This set has the rare quality of being wowing while subtle, yet also functional in that it keeps focus on the actors rather than itself.
These actors soak up that focus with great aplomb. Jonathan Hadary (originally from Bethesda in a “local boy who made good in NYC triumphantly returns” story) has drunk deeply of the character of Tevye and let him fill every cell and capillary in his body. Hadary’s take on the role is individualistic, if not unique. Hadary’s Tevye is a lovable sad sack, drawing humor out of this play slowly, straight-faced and steadily. Even in the drunkenly celebratory “L’Chaim,” Tevye’s adulation is colored with a sense of undeserved and impending doom.
This interpretation of Tevye is quite a revelation, differing significantly from the forced jollity of Topol and his imitators. Hadary’s choices change the arc of Tevye from a boisterous grinner broken by circumstances who strives on in spite of them to a hardened kvetcher who faces those circumstances stoically, who overcomes them by force of will and faith. Whether or not vocal necessity drove the choice to use recitative (speaksinging) for Tevye, that choice reinforced Hadary’s interpretation brilliantly and more successfully than other versions of that choice (specifically Harvey Fierstein’s brutally unwatchable recent national tour).
Beyond the lead, this cast runs deep with talent. Local actors Dorea Schmidt, Scott Harrison, and Maria Rizzo (playing Tzeitel, Mendel, and Chava respectively) are leveling up with their Arena Stage debuts. Schmidt’s singing, Harrison’s acting, and Rizzo’s dance each showed great promise, not discounting their other skills. Schmidt acts well through her singing, Harrison makes full use of the lines he has, and Rizzo’s dancing during the (guaranteed in this era of musical theater writing) second act “dream ballet” made me forget that I was watching a cheesy musical trope. Keep your eye on all three of them as up-and-coming performers destined for bigger roles in DC’s flagship companies.
Similarly, Colin K. Bill’s debut as lighting designer at Arena was a strong first step in this space. He makes full use of an absolutely enormous rig of lights, not giving in to the flashiness that often gets Helen Hayes nods, but instead setting mood and texture with a deft touch. When you go see the show (and you should see this show), think about the vast quantities of space that Bills has to cover and admire the smooth and subtle transitions between those spaces that he lights.
Here, I would normally do some kvetching of my own that Arena went to New York for not an insignificant number of performers, but the talent that they picked up has top-notch quality. Erick Devine as Lazar Wolf and Hannah Corneau as Hodel were standouts. Corneau has a truly exceptional voice that serves as a candle in the darkness of the second act.
It is a testament to the depth of talent in the cast that I can’t mention each of the outstanding members of the cast by name. Fiddler is the kind of play that calls out for a Best Ensemble award given their tightness as a group so early in the run. Music Director Paul Sportelli and Choreographer Parker Esse have to be given credit for keeping a machine with so many moving parts so well-oiled. Esse in particular put his own flairs into a musical whose choreography is usually a carbon copy of the original dance numbers; he kept in expected classic moments, but added some enjoyable and unexpected twists.
Even more, Molly Smith’s direction and total comfort in the Fichandler showed through in the sum of her choices, and the experience was one that kept these famous songs as earworms for days after the performance. Her experience with the space helped her choose some wonderfully theatrical moments which I won’t give away here, but make this production a far better choice for your evening’s entertainment than watching a movie, even the Topol version.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
EXTENDED! Closes January 11, 2015
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $99 – $119
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Some discrete parts did count against the play as a whole though. Despite Molly Smith’s excellent overall direction, she still has not solved Fiddler’s second act problem with this production. The issue is that the first act is quite simply one of the best musical acts of all time, but the second act drags. Her solution seems to be the inclusion of two often-cut numbers, but, since those numbers didn’t add much to the play, they instead showed why they are cut. Beyond the production direction, I’m not sure what to make of this programming choice for a theater that should be pushing boundaries, but it seems that Arena is committing to having a secure blockbuster musical spot in each season, so it might as well be this twist on a classic.
Unfortunately, one specific aspect of the production was distractingly poor. The dialect work as a whole was shoddy and weirdly incongruous. The main criticism I have of Hadary’s Tevye is that he sounds as if he has already moved to New York in the beginning of the play and has been living in Queens for years. I don’t know where Joshua Morgan’s Motel was from, but his odd dialect was exacerbated by Morgan’s clown-influenced acting style that made for some good laugh moments but undercut the character as a whole. I applaud him for taking a unique interpretation on what could be a very vanilla character, but it didn’t work for me.i
But this is the jaded critic in me coming out. During the act break and after the show, it came to my attention that not one but two of my friends (who are theater people, even musical theater people) had never actually seen Fiddler in any of its incarnations. It was amazing to see the magic of Fiddler do its work on fresh eyes, exciting fresh ears with its songs, and bringing new laughter to the world from its hilarious book. If you’re already a dedicated Fiddler fan, Arena is offering a dynamic modulation on the classic you love, and you should go see it. But if you have yet to see it, this Fiddler at Arena will be your best chance to catch a fantastic revival, and you should go see it. Either way, go see it.
Fiddler on the Roof . Book by Joseph Stein . Music by Jerry Bock . Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick . based on Sholem Aleichem stories by special permission of Arnold Perl . Directed by Molly Smith . Original choreography by Jerome Robbins adapted and restaged by Parker Esse.
Featuring Fiddler: Alex Alferov, Golde: Ann Arvia, Shprintze: Shayna Blass, Fyedka: Kurt Boehm, Bielke: Maya Brettell, Hodel: Hannah Corneau, Lazar Wolf: Erick Devine, Tevye: Jonathan Hadary, Mendel: Scott Harrison,
Yente/Grandma Tzeitel: Valerie Leonard, Nachum: Joe Mallon, Yussel: Jimmy Mavrikes, Motel: Joshua Morgan,
Fruma-Sarah: Tracy Lynn Olivera, Rabbi: Joe Peck, Shandel: Barbara Pinolini, Chava: Maria Rizzo, Perchik: Michael Vitaly Sazonov, Sasha: Kyle Schliefer, Tzeitel: Dorea Schmidt, Mordcha: Thomas Adrian Simpson, Constable/Russian Soloist: Chris Sizemore, Avram: Jamie Smithson, Ensemble: Trevor Illingworth, Farrell Parker, Curtis Schroeger.
Music Director: Paul Sportelli, Set Designer: Todd Rosenthal, Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell, Lighting Designer: Colin K. Bills, Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones, Fight Consultant: David Leong, Dialect Coach: Lynn Watson, Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith, Assistant Choreographer: Curtis Schroeger, Assistant Music Director: Brad Gardner,
Stage Manager: Susan R. White assisted by Kristen Harris . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Alan Katz.