Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
The Mac-Haydn opened their 1999 season with “The Music Man” – a rousing, old-fashioned show about a town learning to believe in itself through outside forces. This was a great success. And I am pleased to say that they are closing the season with an equally successful production of “Fiddler on the Roof” – a rousing, old-fasioned show about a town that believes in itself torn apart by outside forces.
“Fiddler” was an enormous Broadway success when it opened in 1964. Created by librettist Joseph Stein from the stories of Sholom Aleichem, it shows us the eastern European town of Anatevka in the year 1905 through the eyes of Tevye, a milkman with a wife and five daughters. Tevye and his neighbors are orthodox Jews, living precariously, like a fiddler balanced on the peak of a roof, under a tyrannical and hostile Christian government. Tevye’s three older daughters are of marriageable age, and, depsite the opening number of the show which stresses “Tradition” none of the three make traditional arranged marriages.
“Fiddler” is great theatre in that it fully embraces its subjects, and their time and place in history. While no musical comedy claims to be 100% historically or sociologically accurate, “Fiddler” does not make fun of these people, but enbraces the fun they find in daily life. For the audience it is a complete departure from the modern world, a chance to see our ancestors as they probably were and marvel in our similarities and differences.
But “Fiddler” is a lopsided show in two respects. First, it is built as a star turn for the actor playing Tevye. No other character really gets enough time on stage to win us over. Secondly, all the good songs are in the first half of the show. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick have written some songs that have so completely saturated the modern musical canon that people run screaming when they hear them (anyone for a chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset”? ARGHHH!) and other songs that are tuneless and completely forgetable.
With the show resting squarely on Tevye’s shoulders, it is pretty darned important to find the right actor for the role. Mischa Kischkum is a professional stock company Tevye, meaning that he makes a large protion of his living as an actor playing this role. He certainly looks the part and sings well. His Tevye was a bit too bland, I longed for more, well, character. But overall he was very winning and very professional.
He was ably supported by Patti McClure as Tevye’s wife, Golde, and by David J. Schuller as Lazar Wolf, the wealthy butcher. Schuller is also a professional Tevye, slumming it in a secondary role this time, and undoubtedly understudying Kischkum. It was nice to see McClure get to play a more commonplace woman after two diva turns as bold, brassy, sassy middle-aged broads in “42nd Street” and “Anything Goes”.
Director Paul Gregory Nelson, who starred in two earlier Mac-Haydn productions this season has a good feel for the quirky performance space and for the talents of the regular corps of actors/dancers/singers. A lot of people singing in a small space can be overpowering and off-putting, or it can be a communal bonding experience. In “Fiddler” it had better be the latter, and Nelson has acheived it. His cast looks like they are having fun and enjoying each other’s company. No small feat with a group that has been performing together for the past 10 weeks and undoubtedly knows all of each others warts and failings by now.
Shannon Polly (Tzeitel), Debra Buonaccorsi (Hodel), and Kelly Shook (Chava) played the marriageable daughters. Polly has been a delight and a solid company member all summer long. Buonaccorsi was a little too wide-eyed as Maria in “West Side Story” and decidedly bland as Hope Harcourt in “Anything Goes”, but she seemed to enjoy playing a young woman of strong convictions here. Her singing voice is lovely and well suited to the numbers in this show. Shook is a Mac-Haydn regular from way back, and she is maturing into a nice little actress. I enjoyed her as Anybody in “West Side Story” and she delivered the goods again in “Fiddler”.
As the inevitable sons-in-law, Michael Ursua as Motel the Tailor was the stand-out. His metamorphosis from shy boy to responsible husband and father was subtle and believable. When Tevye says at the end that Motel is a real man, you heartily agree. As the radical Perchik, Hodel’s future husband, Clay Smith was far below the challenge vocally. The gentile/Jew match between Chava and Timothy Kennedy’s Fyedka was the most volatile of the three marriages, and was given short-shrift plot-wise because of its potential for controversy. Kennedy can do plenty, but he had no chance to show it this time around.
After all the frenetic tap-dancing in the last two Mac-Haydn shows it was nice to see the cast kick up their heels in some more organic folk-style dancing. The dance at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding done by the male guests with empty bottles balanced on their heads was wonderful. Lots of people can tap and twirl, but dancing with a bottle on your head is a real accomplishment. At the performance I attended every bottle stayed up through the whole dance, and the looks on the dancers faces as they completed the number successfully was worth the price of admission.
Sure, there are the usual problems inherent in staging an ethnic show with an stock company. Not everyone can pass for an eastern European Jew. There are an awful lot of appallingly bad fake beards in evidence. And the young Jordan Paul all decked out in masses of grey hair and prayer shawls as the Rabbi is kind of embarassing. But Kischkum is solid, the costumes are great, the singing and dancing is of professional caliber. Its good enough.
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs through September 5 at the Mac-Haydn Theatree on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. For tickets and information, call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999