Fiddler on the Roof

The Huntsville Community Chorus is running the timeless musical Fiddler on the Roof through next weekend at the Von Braun Center Playhouse.  As long as there are people in the world struggling to deal with changing traditions, and people being oppressed and driven out of their homes, this show will have cultural significance.

It is the story of a dirt-poor milkman at the turn of the previous century, living in Czarist Russia.  He tries to take care of his large family under an oppressive regime, and see that his five daughters get good marriages, while maintaining his hold on his traditional values.  Leavened with classic tunes like “Tradition”, “Matchmaker”, “If I Were a Rich Man”, and “Sunrise, Sunset”, it is a poignant tale of people who are like a fiddler on the roof, “trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune, without breaking his neck”.  As the lead character, “Tevye”, explains at the top of the show, the one thing that holds everything together, and allows everyone to get on with their lives is “Tradition”, but that has to be balanced against changing times and customs.  Based on the tales of Sholem Aleichem (sometimes called “the Jewish Mark Twain”), when Fiddler first launched on Broadway in 1964, the fear was that it was too focused on the issues of a specific ethnic group, but the critics were wrong.  They failed to grasp that the issues are universal, and it went on to set the record as the longest-running Broadway show (and hold that distinction for ten years, until it was knocked off that perch by Grease).

This HCCA production clearly cast the show for the singing voices, and it is at its best when those voices are on display.  With some amazing vocal talent, this production is carried along by the tunes that have seeped into our national consciousness.  The direction, by Craig Reinhart, can be a bit static or linear (i.e. like it was rehearsed in a hallway) when the music isn’t playing, and misses the mark occasionally on emphasizing both some of the more dramatic, poignant moments, and some of the comedic bits, but does manage to keep the actors out of each others’ way, and let the story unfold. It was a nice touch including the fiddler throughout (played with wonderful stage presence by Sonia Guettler), but the metaphorical significance of her presence is a reach at times.  There does not appear to have been any executive decision made regarding accents, because there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind who has one, or even what country these people are apparently from (with one character even sounding closest to Italian much of the time).  All that said, Reinhart successfully manages to herd a very large cast around the stage rather well, paint some good pictures, and has put together a very relaxed, easy play to watch.

Lisa Kennedy does a fine job with the music direction.  Benefiting from the emphasis on singing ability, she managed to put together a very nice-sounding production.  The numbers with the entire village onstage don’t quite shake the rafters as they should with that many people all singing together, like with the opening “Tradition” song, but the blends are still very nice.  As Conductor, she also managed to assemble and lead a talented group of musicians who support the production ably. Sadly, this production has the usual issues with performing a musical with live orchestra in the Playhouse, because is there no “pit” between the stage and the audience.  The actors can’t see the conductor, so there are times when they aren’t sure when to come in with a line of lyrics, and when to cut-off.  That said, the music is still the strongest part of this production, and there were a number of times when the audience was clapping along.

The choreography, by Terrena Mann, was understandably cramped when she had to work with the entire cast onstage at once, and thus is at its best in some of the smaller numbers, like “To Life”, and the wedding bottle dance.  While this isn’t a cast of trained dancers, she did a nice job of reflecting the moods of the play, and the culture of the characters.

The women carry this show away. Secalee Espada, as Tevye’s wife “Golde”, has a very nice voice, and does a fine job with her hen-pecking character who discovers that she does love her arranged-marriage husband of thirty years.  The three oldest daughters, all breaking tradition with their marriage arrangements, are uniformly superb.  Jessi Rogers, is the oldest daughter “Tzeitel”, who rejects her father’s chosen match for her, and marries the poor village tailor for love.  Gianna Shuetz, is the second daughter, “Hodel”, who doesn’t even ask for permission to marry the teacher.  Abigayle Williams, is the third daughter, “Chava”, who goes so far as to marry outside the faith in falling for a Russian soldier.  They are all excellent, with wonderful singing voices, and a great command of their characters and scenes.  Rogers, in particular, shows true professsionalism in acting when someone else has the line or lyric, and is probably the best scene partner out there. Andrea Jernigan, as the village matchmaker, “Yente”, does a very nice job in a role intended for someone at least twice her age.  She is very real, interesting, and entertaining–all critical qualities onstage.  This character can come across as an annoying shrew, but Jernigan makes this a likable, funny character, and she also handles her singing moments with good command.  Janie Clasgens, as the town butcher’s dead ex-wife, “Fruma-Sarah”, provides one of the absolute highlights of the show during her short appearance in the dream sequence, and one hopes we see much more of her in much larger roles.

The principal men, while also having nice singing voices, generally don’t quite match the women during the non-musical moments.  Jeff Lapidus, as the lead, “Tevye”, doesn’t have the connection to the audience one wants when this character breaks the fourth wall, and he’s a touch too artificial the rest of the time, but he does a nice job with his songs, and manages to be very relaxed onstage.  The audience is easily able to sympathize with this poor guy just trying to find the balance between his comfortable traditions, and the changing world around him.  Brandon Stephens, as the poor village tailor, “Motel”, who marries Tevye’s oldest daughter, matches up well with her, and does a very nice job with this character.  One understands why TJ Boland was cast as the communist revolutionary, “Perchik”, when he opens his throat and sings, because he has a beautiful voice.  Willem Butler, as the Russian soldier, “Fyedka”, is a talented singer and dancer, and when he joins in on the “To Life” number in the bar, it is a beautiful moment.  With the character of the “Constable”, played by Kevin Wade, this production veers away from the sympathetic character of the musical, and seems to have returned to the character in the source material by Aleichem.  By reflecting the book version of the character, this production has the advantage of a living, breathing embodiment of the heartless czarist persecution of the Jews, but it does make one wonder why Tevye is friends with him, as called for in the script.

The set, by Scott Trites, serves the production well, taking good advantage of the flies, and allowing for rapid scene changes between multiple locations.  Micki Lighthall’s stage management is quite well done, keeping the action moving during some complicated scene changes, and keeping the orchestra vamping during the blackouts to a minimum.  The lighting, by Cynthia Meyer, supports the action well, and helps to focus the eye on the right spots of an often crowded stage, and the few mis-timed cues will likely be cleaned up as the run continues.  The sound, managed by Rich Lighthall, has the expected issues with balancing such a large cast, with so many individual body-mics.  One suspects that this production would have sounded much better with a handful of drop-mics suspended from the ceiling, and letting the actors do some belting, but the audience does manage to follow the action, and the mic issues aren’t as distracting as some other VBC productions.  The costumes, by Sharon Purves, are very good, ably distinguishing the various characters, the time period, and the setting.  The makeup team, headed by Heather Tewalt, is unfortunately trying to age people way more than is possible with the often heavy-handed makeup on several of the characters.  Some of the actors are bordering on clown effects, with makeup that might play well next door in the much larger VBC concert hall.  Additionally, the HCCA should consider investing in a better set of fake facial hair, because their current supply is completely unconvincing.  As a side note, one hopes that the lobby display will be completed now that the show is open, because the opening-night scattering of unlabeled headshots on the wall was uninspiring and unhelpful.

Overall, this is a nice effort by HCCA.  With “Chorus” in the group’s name, it’s understandable that the emphasis was on the singing and music, which is uniformly nice throughout.  This is a classic play for good reason, and even with its flaws, this production still allows the script and score to shine through.  Performances continue through next weekend.  Ticket information and show times can be found at this link.

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