Fiddler on the Roof
Based on stories by Sholem Aleichem
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Featuring Adam Heller
Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Connecticut
June 27, 2014 – September 12, 2014
[This is the fourth of five off campus reviews generated while I was a 2014 O’Neill National Critics Institute Fellow.]
East Haddam, Connecticut is rebuilding everywhere. Bridges are being reconstructed, creating temporary traffic challenges, and old musicals are looked at anew. Michael Price, outgoing Executive Director of East Haddam-based Goodspeed Musicals describes their work with old musicals as “rebuilding from the ground up.” Price easily discusses the expected range of success and challenge in staging musical works. “We’re like a ball team making hits, runs, and errors,” he notes, while the Goodspeed supportive patron community of 15,000 subscribers, “allows us to fail.” Their latest community supported rebuilding effort is a selectively successful community-infused musical – Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof running through September 12, 2014.
Fiddler originally opened in 1964 with set designer Boris Aronson’s village haunted by imagery of Marc Chagall, framing the village streets and household locations as a fairy tale world. The Goodspeed Opera House itself is a toy box venue – narrow with old fashioned challenged sight lines in many locales – that architecturally sets the stage with nostalgia. Michael Schweikardt’s set design builds on this foundation, combining literal and abstract elements in a suggestive balance. Set elements such as cabin doors stage left and stage right, a pole with a red flag to represent the train station, a stand of birch tree trunks, and an upstage abstractly textured wall that reflects light and shadow, are painted with light by designer John Lasiter.
Within this frame, we focus on text of the Sholem Aleichem’s original story as adapted in Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and Joseph Stein’s book. Peasant patriarch Tevye (Adam Heller) talks to his God and explains his philosophy, wife Golde (Lori Wilner) questions and loves him, daughters and their suitors test him, neighbors bemuse him, and a looming Russian revolution threatens to overrun layered community traditions in a poor Russian village.
The tone set by director Rob Ruggiero is contemplative. Ensemble characters are solid but on the whole generic, and the drama in each daughter’s life can feel tonally dampened. Voices pleasantly blend in choral moments, but are ultimately undistinctive within the familiar klezmer-influenced score. The looming Russian revolutionary menace threatening the village of Anatevka in 1905 could be more menacing than is currently suggested – we want to feel the pressure from the outside the village as well as the daughter-inspired “I’ll marry who I want to marry” pressure from within, and this production loses that thread.
Two persuasive key characterizations embrace and thrive with the director’s general tonal choice– Adam Heller as pondering and quietly funny Tevye, and Lori Wilner as Tevye’s nurturing wife Golde. The “Sabbath Prayer” they lead in their modest home early in the first act, and the off-kilter long song “Do You Love Me?” early in the second act are heartbreaking marvels of understated and focused vocal tension and release.
Michael Price suggests that this production tells his story. “Tonight you’re seeing a little bit of me,” he says, “my people, my family, of just a few generations ago.” I contend that the success of this musical and the most successful emotional moments in this particular production are the most personal, the most specific, the most universal. In those moments when the Goodspeed production of Fiddler on the Roof production lands, it hits right in the emotions. And that speaks to everyone.
© Martha Wade Steketee (July 10, 2014)