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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Fiddler on the Roof
Desert Stages Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Take Me Out


Tony Blosser
The classic musical Fiddler on the Roof is currently receiving a sleek and splendid production at the Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale. Fiddler tells the well-known story of Tevye, the poor Jewish dairy man, his wife and five daughters in early 1900s Russia and the changing world around them as he tries to hold on to his traditions and religious customs. Fiddler on the Roof is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, having opened on Broadway in September of 1964, and the Desert Stages production is well directed with several great performances.

With a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best written musicals of all time. For a story that deals with the serious topic of anti-Semitism and the Russian expulsion of Jews from their homes, the creators found an appropriate way to balance the drama with humor and to show how a simple poor man like Tevye, while deeply religious, deals with the changing social mores that impact his family. With a tight story, superb characters and many songs that have become standards, including "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition," and "Sunrise, Sunset," Fiddler is a touching and joyful story of love and hope filled with plenty of humor and warmth.

The Desert Stages Theatre's main stage is a theatre in the round, or actually, in the rectangle, which doesn't allow for much in the way of scenic elements. Fortunately, director/choreographer Kyle C. Greene has found an easy solution to that problem, focusing instead only on the characters, the action and the heart of the story and not worrying about the lack of sets. Technically, he does still have the very important "roof" in the show title and, yes, there is a fiddler that appears on it, but the complete lack of any other set elements, with the exception of Tevye's cart, the door to his house and a few tables and chairs, combined with the closeness of the actors to the audience, turns this into one of the most intimate and touching productions of this show I've ever seen. With a cast of 37, including director Greene as one of the featured dancers, it is probably the production with the largest cast I've ever seen as well. And that large cast adds n additional positive element to the production, too, providing a deep sense of community that can only come when you have a large number of people surrounding Tevye and his family.

As Tevye and his wife Golde, Tony Blosser and Marie Gouba couldn't be better. They act exactly like a couple who have been together for twenty five years, raised five daughters and didn't even know each other until their wedding day. They both are able to wring every bit of humor and emotion from the dialogue and lyrics, creating two extremely touching characters. Their performance of "Do You Love Me?" is sweet, charming and completely realistic. Blosser's many talks to God for answers, when he is confronted by questions that go against his beliefs and he isn't sure how much he can bend without breaking, are extremely effective, especially with the appropriate use of stillness to show Tevye's keen sense of soul searching.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, not everyone is up to the level of Blosser and Gouba, but Caroline Noonan as their second to oldest daughter Hodel is lovely and touching and her performance of "Far From the Home I Love" is very well sung. Jared West as Perchik, the rebel stranger who comes to town and falls for Hodel, looks and acts the part perfectly and he has a good connection with Noonan.

Ginger Muth as Yente the matchmaker is also just about perfect. She brings the right amount of energy to the part and manages to get every joke out of the dialogue, while also exhibiting a sweetness and softness, especially in the "Anatevka" finale. Ted Frumkin as Lazar Wolf, the butcher who becomes engaged to Tevye's oldest daughter, manages to instill a strong sense of sincerity in the part but also a nice amount of humor.

Greene's direction is well done, with a nice balance between the humor that resonates through most of act one and the drama that creeps up on Tevye, and the audience, during the second act. I especially like how, during the opening number "Tradition," which introduces all of the characters in the village, including the non-Jews, Greene has some of his cast members who are playing the Jews turns their backs to the gentile characters, quickly indicating the unease in the village. His direction of the large cast in a small setting is very well choreographed, with the effective use of the four exits, the central playing space, plus a couple of playing areas in the balcony. However, there are two sequences that are slightly misdirected. The "Sabbath Prayer" sequence is somewhat unfocused, with Golde lighting the Sabbath candles in the center of the theatre surrounded by her family and the rest of the cast entering from all sides with all of them holding candles, which doesn't exactly make sense. Other productions have made the significance of the tradition of this scene very clear by having the women lighting the candles surrounded by their families to indicate the traditional lighting ceremonies that are going on simultaneously across Anatevka and the rest of the country. Here, it just seems like a chorus of people holding candles have surrounded Tevye's house for no apparent reason. Also, at the end of the first act, when there is a demonstration by the Russians that impacts Tevye and his family, there is a very abrupt ending and little emotional impact with Tevye yelling at his family and walking off the stage. Traditionally, the ending has Tevye looking up at the sky as if to ask God why He is doing this to his family, which perfectly captures the feelings not only of Tevye but the audience as well. But those are just two small quibbles as Greene makes everything else work very nicely.

Greene's choreography uses some of the signature Jerome Robbins moves created for the original Broadway production, including the famous wedding bottle dance that Greene leads. But he also adds plenty of new steps and movements that work well, especially with the large cast and the small playing space.

Creative elements are nicely done. And, even though there are minimal set elements, the birch trees that surround the space, coming out of the walls in some areas, give a nice feeling, as if the audience is in a clearing in the village and is witness to the action of the play happening all around us. So, while the set design is minimal, it is effective, though I wish that the beautifully designed wooden Star of David that hangs over one section of the audience was incorporated somehow into the action, as I'm sure some people in the audience will not even realize it is there.

Costumes by Richard and Rhea Courtney are perfect, easily establishing the period and location of the show. As the seasons change in the show and the weather gets colder, the use of heavier clothing also quickly sets the time of year. The lighting by Haley Miller is extremely effective in focusing our attention on the various playing areas throughout the small, intimate theatre.

At the performance, I attended there was a slight disconnect in the volume level of the pre-recorded music tracks and the level of sound from the microphones the cast uses. This resulted in the music sometimes drowning out the actors. Hopefully, it is something that can easily be adjusted. While the use of pre-recorded music is somewhat of a disappointment, Cara Shearer's live violin playing as the "Fiddler" is a nice complement to the canned music.

Fiddler on the Roof is a powerful piece of musical theatre with a wonderful score, a strong sense of humor and realistic drama effectively combining to tell the tale of a simple man, his family and fellow villagers confronted by some serious issues. The Desert Stage Theatre production has a good cast, fine direction, a sleek design and manages very effectively to tell a human story filled with heart.

The Desert Stages production of Fiddler on the Roof runs through February 2nd with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org, or by phone at (480) 483-1664.

Director/Choreographer: Kyle C. Greene
Assistant Director/ Assistant Choreographer: Marisa Peck
Music Director: Heather Fallon
Stage Manager: Marisa Peck
Set Designer: Kyle C. Greene, Paul Fi lan, Damion Westbrook
Lighting Designer: Haley Miller
Sound Designer: J. J. Corirossi
Costume Designers: Richard "Mickey" Courtney, Rhea Courtney
Cast:
Tony Blosser: Tevye
Marie Gouba: Golde
Ashlee Renee: Tzeitel
Caroline Noonan: Hodel
Harley Barton: Chava
Caitlyn Freeman: Shprintze
Talia Novack: Bielke
Ginger Muth: Yente
Manny Quijada: Motel
Jared West: Perchik
Ted Frumkin: Lazar Wolf
Cara Shearer: The Fiddler/Villager
Dan Ashlock: Mordcha
Rich Weschrob: Rabbi
Mark Honaker: Avram
Erika Hanson: Yussel
Laurie Dickman Shaindel
Lauren Berkley: Grandma Tzeitel/Villager
Carolyn Paski: Fruma-Sarah/Villager
Jerry Whiting: Constable
Andy Albrecht: Fyedka /Bottle Dancer
Zach Pepe: Vladamir/Bottle Dancer
Kyle C. Green: Sasha/Bottle Dancer
Megan Davis, Marissa Rodgers, Genesis Cuen: Villagers/Chavela Dream Daughters
Villagers: Quinlyn Ashlock, Zachary Astrowsky, Claire Goux, Lia Hunyady, Ally Koeppel, Ross Nemeth, Jared Lara, Emily Pawluck, Allie Rose, Meryl Rose, Dani Topel, Matthew Villareal


Photo: Heather Butcher

--Gil Benbrook


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