THE POWER OF TRADITION SPARKS
AN EXCELLENT FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.
I would think that after seeing FIDDLER ON THE ROOF three times this theater season that I would find no surprises left in this 51 year old classic, that is not the case. The Berkeley Playhouse ends their seventh season with a wonderful take on the village of Anatevka. The community of Tevye and his FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is beautifully directed by Bay Area favorite, Jon Tracy. Many folks complain that most local reviewers are too generous in our praise of local stages. But the fact is we have a core of great Bay Area actors, creative directors and tech people bringing this all together with some help of talented producers. All this is currently evident with this fresh take on an American classic now on stage at the Julia Morgan theatre.
Tevye celebrates 51 years in this terrific production of this timeless musical FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, written by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and book by Sheldon Harnick. Based on the classic stories of Sholem Aleichem, the musical won 9 Tony Awards and was the first show to surpass 3000 performances on Broadway. It would go on to hold the record of longest Broadway run for over 10 years. Director Tracy assembled a talented cast of 45 players and he brings a fresh communal look to this old village. “I’m fascinated by the concept of tradition. This is a story so rich in its heritage that we can all find connection. Family, culture, fear, sacrifice.... How do we grow together? How do we grow apart? -it’s a perfect show for the beauty of the Julia Morgan Theater”, says director Jon Tracy.
Most impressive is to see the entire cast on stage throughout this musical, bringing a new community look to the village and warmth of Anatevka. The cast fills the Julia Morgan space singing and changing for their next entrances. Tevye is played by the powerful and friendly Michael RJ Campbell, who commands the stage. FIDDLER is full of memorable classics including “If I Were a Rich Man” usually done solo, in this version the cast joins him to help prove his point. It is the start of what appears to be a new look to this story.
Matthew McCoy choreographed some impressive stage presence including the bottle dance with real bottles (not shoved in prop hats you see in other productions). High flying Russians and pure family delight in the classic “To Life”. Tevya has five daughters including Chava played wonderfully by Grace Ng, who has double duties as the iconic Fiddler. It brings a tear to your eye to see the Fiddler fly into her dad's arms at the end of the opening number. Chave is also the daughter that breaks Tevya’s heart by marrying the Russian boy Fyedka, played by Luke Myers.Tracy brings this break of tradition a heart warming family tolerance.
Jade Shojaee as Tevye's second daughter, Hodel is also a standout. Most impressive was Kirk Johnson as Motel the Tailor and his memorable “Miracle of Miracles”. Tzeitel, played by Abby Lee also is engaging on stage. The story of this village is full of well known songs and this cast is just about perfect. The very talented and enduring Sarah Mitchell is Golde, Tevye's wife and is stunning in “Do You Love Me”. Music Director Rachel Robinson keeps her cast busy in the wings and on stage, bringing a wonderful acapella performance to “Sabbath Prayer” usually performed with the orchestra. Tracy and Robinson keep the tradition of the sabbath and not include instruments.
Campbell completely turns the tale of Fruma-Sarah as he performs all the characters in “The Dream”. Along with the company this is a tour de force performance by Tevye and a show stopper. If only Zero Mostel (the original broadway Tevye) was a live to see this version of “The Dream”, he surely would give it an ovation.
Lazar Wolf the butcher and Tzeitels older suitor, is played by the very versatile Berwick Hays, who just completed BPH HAIRSPRAY as Motormouth Maybelle. Hays plays a friendly version of the butcher and is always excellent on stage. Jennie Brick is adorable as Yente the Matchmaker, as she loses her match making powers she is vibrant on stage and is the perfect tradition of the show. Joel Roster is Perchik, the revolutionary, Hodel's eventual husband. Roster and Jade Shojaee as Hodel’s brings that first hint of change to the village, they are both appealing on stage.
The seven member orchestra headed by Robinson is set behind the village and is on cue. The village of Anatevka is a scene stealer designed by Catalina Nino. She brings a lost forest of planks and wood village back drop that is mysterious at times. This set lets Tracy plant some of his leads in the planks of the village including the Rabbie played by John Hale. Also lurking in the background is Johnny Debernard as the Constable. The subtle sounds of the village and warm breezy feel are superb as designed by Taylor Gonzalez sound design.
Liz Martin designed the costumes from brown tan to blue theme. She keeps the tradition of the costumes rich with the culture of the Jewish faith. Blue tone is also the theme with Lighting Designer Andrew Kaufman, and the effective use of natural candlelight and he adds an excellent mood to “The Dream”. In Judaism the blue symbolises divinity, the color the sky and sea.
Other iconic songs in this score include “Tradition”, “Matchmaker” and “Sunrise, Sunset”. The wedding celebration is full scale with the entire company and all the dance and tradition down to the breaking of the glass. I didn’t notice the wigs that Jewish women wear vs shawls and hats, but the celebration is engaging until the Russians arrive to end the first act. Some other roles that need to be mentioned are Salim Razawi and the Rabbi’s son who is outstanding, and John Debernard as the Constable.
A half a century later, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is considered one of the highlights of American Theatre and a major subtext for the post-war Jewish experience. Even when the tale takes a turn to sadness, the characters and the traditional beliefs make us feel hope and love for the future to come. It is the mark of an important story and the evidence why FIDDLER is a staple in American theatre. Spend a Berkeley summer evening with this cast of Tevye's family and his “good book” - it is not to be missed. The sold out opening night audience were on the feet the moment the lights faded.
Congrats to Producing Artistic Director Daren A.C. Carollo, for his first standing ovation season, I look forward to season eight. I highly recommend an evening in Anatevka!
BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE MAINSTAGE
concludes its 7TH season with
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Book by Joseph Stein ● Music by Jerry Bock ● Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Jon Tracy
Choreographed by Matthew McCoy Musical Direction by Rachel Robinson
June 25 – August 2, 2015
Tickets call (510) 845-8542 x351
or visit berkeleyplayhouse.org.
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio.