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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

Fiddler on the Roof
Touring Production

What can possibly be said about Fiddler on the Roof that hasn't been said a million times before? Nothing, really ... but I'll say it anyway. Fiddler on the Roof is deserving of all the acclaim and affection it has earned over the decades since its birth on Broadway. A show of extreme heart, humour and pathos, it is a prime example of musical theatre at its greatest, with a book that really works to make the audience care about its characters and a score that is rapturous, elegant and heartbreaking. Songs such as "Matchmaker," "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Sunrise, Sunset," all classics, are also testaments to the power of excellent song writing, as they still sound fresh and exciting, without a trace of the "datedness" that sometimes accompanies older musical theatre pieces.

I knew I was involved in a great "love-in" when the audience began uproariously clapping and shouting out during the opening bars of "Tradition," before the cast had even begun to sing. For a musical to command this much affection seemed at first worrisome to me; I was left wondering in that first few moments whether or not the cast would ever be able to live up to the expectations already clearly established by the audience. I needn't have worried.

The Broadway Across America production that is travelling through Western Canada does nothing to tarnish the show's legacy, either. It is, quite possibly, the best touring production of a major Broadway musical that I have seen in over a decade. The show makes excellent use of the atmospheric lighting design by Jason Kantrowitz and a simple yet elegant set design from the husband and wife team of Steve and Sam Gilliam, who give credit in the program notes to Marc Chagall and Boris Aronson as their inspiration.

Another element of the show that truly impresses me is the wise decision by director/choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes to honour and re-create Jerome Robbins' original choreography. Fiddler on the Roof has never been known as a "dance" musical (at least, I have never heard it referred to as such). Nevertheless, the choreography Robbins created for the show is quite impressive. Most impressive, of course, are the Russian dancers in the tavern during "To Life" and the bottle dancers at the wedding. The athletic, energetic dancers execute every move effortlessly. Robbins' original choreography is so right in every scene. Being most familiar with Robbins' now legendary work on West Side Story, I found it intriguing to see his work on another American classic.

The cast, too, is excellent. The ensemble works well together, and the opening number "Tradition" is a powerhouse performance, immediately setting the scene and creating a very believable sense of community on stage. The interactions between characters, the pride of the "papas," the weariness of the "mamas" and the excitement present in the sons and daughters; everything is established perfectly within the first two minutes of the show. Of course, this is a testament to the strength of the score and the skill of the authors, but the cast, too, brings an old show to life with verve and energy. This is apparent in all of the group numbers. This production, too, highlights and makes a beautiful moment out of what seems to be an oft-overlooked although quite beautiful moment in the show, the "Sabbath Prayer." The sense of awe and reverence created by the cast is palpable. It is a very powerful scene.

In the role of Golde, Susan Cella is wonderful, never letting her character become simply a caricature of the domineering wife; Cella infuses Golde's lines with humour, compassion and world-weariness, but underneath the annoyance one senses the deep affection and joy that she experiences living with Tevye. She is particularly good during the song "Do You Love Me?" (a sentimental favourite of mine).

The actresses playing Tevye's daughters, also, are wonderful. The audience favourite "Matchmaker" is fun and lively, every laugh landing with perfect comic timing. Of particular note is Jamie Davis in the role of Hodel, the feisty and headstrong second child of the family. Her delivery of the ballad "Far From the Home I Love" is pure perfection.

In the pivotal, iconic role of Tevye, the tour employs the talented and wondrous Theodore Bikel. A production of Fiddler on the Roof is quite obviously made or broken based on the performer in the role of Tevye, and Bikel is so perfectly suited to the role it is hard for me to imagine anyone else having performed for the Calgary audience. Bikel is reported to have played the role over 2000 times; with numbers that high, one might expect a robotic, paint-by-numbers performance. Happily, this is in no way the case. Bikel, at the age of 85, commands the stage in every scene.

The journey of Tevye is one of pain and anguish, but also one of self-discovery and humour. Bikel's comic timing is perfection; conversely, it is hard not to shed a tear or two while watching Tevye slowly break away with tradition as each daughter pursues her own goals and ideals. Bikel embodies the pain of a man torn between his total devotion to his faith and way of life and also to his love and compassion for his family. His interactions with the "fiddler" (the show's beautiful symbol of tradition) and with God during his many monologues are loaded with nuance. The final scene, as the family prepares to depart their beloved village of Anatevka, is perhaps Bikel's most powerful moment of the evening. The poignancy of Tevye's beckoning to a despondent and lonely fiddler is made at once heartbreaking and hopeful through no more than Bikel's weary-yet-hopeful body language. It is a beautiful moment of theatre.

The tour continues on from Calgary to Edmonton, Alberta, from January 19th to the 24th, before traveling back into the United States. Schedules and ticket information can be found online at Ticketmaster.com or BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com.

--Gavin Logan



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