The opening number of Fiddler on the Roof tells the audience exactly what the show is about, "Tradition". However, an argument can also be made that the classic musical itself is a tradition. The current national tour of the show boasts Fiddler's famous songs, familiar story, a recreation of the dances created by its legendary choreographer, and a star that has been performing the lead role for nearly 35 years. Currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, the tour of Fiddler on the Roof again introduces theatergoers to this entertaining, well-written, and excellently executed musical.
Fiddler, of course, tells the story of Tevye, a poor milkman, who lives with his family in a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905. He strives to preserve his religious and family traditions, even as the world around him is changing rapidly. The stress of finding suitable husbands for his five daughters with no dowry, as well as the impending conflict with Russian soldiers occupying the area, push Tevye to question God, to whom he speaks to directly, and his own beliefs.
Over the years, a number of actors have become famous for performing the leading role, including Topol, Zero Mostel, and Herschel Bernardi. However, no one has played the role more than the current Tevye, Theodore Bikel. Mr. Bikel possesses a powerful and commanding stage presence, and brings the necessary warmth, heart, energy, and vulnerability to the role. His comic timing is perfect, and is balanced equally by his passion and emotion in the more dramatic scenes. If Mr. Bikel's voice is not as powerful as some other actors, his singing is rich, clear, confident, and totally appropriate for Tevye.
Fiddler on the Roof also offers many opportunities for other performers to shine, and this company delivers on all levels. Portraying Golde, Susan Cella is effectively frustrated, yet supportive, as the family matriarch. In other supporting roles, Eileen Tepper (Tzeitel), Miriam Babin (Yente), Michael Iannucci (Motel), and Daniel Cooney (Perchik) each do quite well in all facets of their role. Tamra Hayden as Hodel and Sara Schmidt as Chava are deserving of special praise. Both possess beautiful and youthful singing voices that they put to great use. They each also bring depth to their characters as they move from innocent and obedient daughters to independent and thoughtful women. Ms. Schmidt also was impressive in her last performance in Cincinnati, as Anne in A Little Night Music at Playhouse In the Park. In addition, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music graduate Justin Patterson is a standout in the ensemble.
Sammy Dallas Bayes has supplied solid and smart direction for the national tour production and has also faithfully reproduced the original choreography by musical theater legend Jerome Robbins. The sets by Steven Gilliam are based on the original design by Doris Aronson and are attractive, colorful, and generally effective. The costume design by Bottari & Case are appropriate to the period, fun, and likewise appealing.
The score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is one of the strongest from Broadway in the 1960s with classic songs such as "If I Were A Rich Man", "Tradition", "Matchmaker, Matchmaker", and "Sunrise, Sunset". The score sounds great with this wonderful cast and a full orchestra capably led by Musical Director Sheilah Walker. Joseph Stein's book is both touching and humorous, and weaves many story lines together effectively. With a running time of nearly three hours, the book seems unnecessarily padded in places, especially towards the end of each act. However, it is well written and, despite the length, never seems tedious.
Fiddler on the Roof was a hit when it arrived on
Broadway back in 1964, and it remains a success today thanks to a
wonderful lead actor in Theodore Bikel, a fine ensemble, appropriate
design and direction, and a strong book and score. The musical continues
at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through May 6, 2001.
-- Scott Cain