It is hard to believe that when Fiddler On The Roof opened in 1964, it was criticized for its perceived limited appeal. Bucking the rules of commercial success for the time, Fiddler dealt with serious issues such as religious persecution, poverty, interfaith relationships, socialist politics and most importantly, the struggle to hold onto one's traditions and beliefs in a changing world. Audiences, however, embraced the show, making its original run of 3,242 performances one of Broadway's longest.
Based on a series of short stories written by Solomon J. Rabinowitz under the pen name of Shalom Aleichem (literally meaning "peace be with you" in Hebrew), Fiddler tells the tale of a poor dairy farmer named Tevye, who resides in a small Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, and his battle to preserve his family's and faith's traditions in the face of a shifting and oppressive world.
The touring version is basically a recreation of the original Broadway production. Sammy Dallas Bayes' direction and choreography is based on Jerome Robbins' award winning work and the costumes and sets are likewise inspired by the original. This is not a negative thing, as Fiddler is not in dire need of rethinking or revising. This familiarity is a double-edged sword, however. Thanks to a multitude of regional and community theater productions, not to mention a near-perfect movie adaptation, it is easy to dismiss the show and hard to get too excited over the prospect of revisiting it. However, that would be a grave mistake as it would mean missing a magnificent portrayal of its central character by Theodore Bikel.
While Bikel is old enough to be his "children's" grandfather (and at 77 is the same age as the actor playing the aged Rabbi), his energy is that of a man half his age, making him more than a match for the 20- and 30-something dancers that surround him. Bikel pours his heart and soul into the part, taking us on Tevye's emotional journey with every gesture, put-upon sigh, or mock-quarrel with his God (a remarkably present character in the show). Without ever resorting to an idealized caricature of a Russian Jew, Bikel makes us feel every joy, sorrow or agonizing choice faced by Tevye, and somehow makes the part feel fresh and new, no mean feat considering that he has played Tevye over 1,700 times. He is supported by a cast that ranges from serviceable to highly enjoyable, highlights being Jonathan Hadley (Perchik), Rachel Jones (Hodel), and Jeri Sager (a delightfully over the top Fruma-Sarah).
As the show and its songs are so familiar, it is easy to take Fiddler for granted and dismiss it as a light piece of fluff. However, with its central examination of the shifting of values and traditions in the face of chaotic and ever-changing times, and its depiction of an entire village forced out of their homes by an oppressive government, Fiddler On The Roof is particularly resonant given today's global climate.
When Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway in 1948, it was considered a welcome antidote to the events of the recent World War. Over fifty years later, a touring production of the recently closed Broadway revival is providing the same emotional relief.
Kiss Me, Kate was inspired by the antics of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, whose backstage quarrels during a production of The Taming Of The Shrew were as tempestuous as what they were portraying onstage. With a book by Samuel and Bella Spewack and a score by Cole Porter, Kiss Me, Kate won five Tony Awards including the inaugural award for Best Musical. The 1999 revival, incidentally, won the same number of Tonys, including a record-making Best Director nod for Michael Blakemore, the first director to win a Tony for directing a musical and a play (Copenhagen) in the same year.
A great deal of the current production's success is that those involved treat it as a revival and not a revisal, trusting that audiences would still enjoy its old-fashioned style and fantastic score. So what if the book has more loose ends than a fraying macramé planter? Or if some of the characters are thinner than Calista Flockhart? Or that the pat endings make Greek 'deus ex machine' resolutions look like Chekhov in comparison? The book (with some uncredited minor updating by John Guare) is basically a wire hanger upon which to hang a fantastic score (a score that contains at least a half dozen of Cole Porters' finest standards) and provide an excuse for two stars to duke it out and shine in the process.
Kiss Me, Kate is one of those rare musicals in which both the male and female leads get equal time to shine, and thus is dependent on a perfect balance between the two. The touring production is blessed with two performers who have a shared history, Rex Smith [see Jonathan's interview with Rex] and Rachel York, who previously appeared opposite each other in the second incarnation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Rex Smith is admittedly an odd choice for Fred Graham, as the role is traditionally played by a bass baritone and Rex's tenor is not quite a perfect fit for some of the lower notes. However, Smith makes a more human and humorous Fred than did Brian Stokes Mitchell, as his portrayal of the producer/writer/actor is less over-the-top and more hanging-on-by-fingernails. Rex also deftly handles the transition between the persona of Petruchio in the show-within-a-show production of The Taming Of The Shrew: The Musical and the more tender off-stage moments between Fred and his ex-wife. Rachel York as said embattled ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, is a sight to behold and hear, perfectly nailing every moment and nuance of the part. Her high soprano notes come as a delightful surprise and her comic timing is impeccable, making her rendition of "So In Love" as heart breaking as her "I Hate Men" was gut-busting.
The secondary characters are a bit more hit-or-miss. Chuck Wagner is glorious, if woefully underutilized, as the General MacArthur-esque fiancé of Lilli's (watching the show made me think he would make a wonderful Officer Lockstock in Urinetown)). Jenny Hill is sweet as Lois Lane/Bianca, but never fully realizes the full potential of two of Porter's best songs, "Why Can't You Behave" and "Always True To You (In My Fashion)." Jim Newman makes for a dashing Bill Calhoun/Lucentio. Unfortunately, saddled with one of the worst songs Cole Porter wrote on purpose (due to a pique he had with the original actor), Jim makes the most out of "Bianca" through his phenomenal dancing. Randy Donaldson (Paul) displays great energy in "Too Darn Hot," the opening dance number for the second act (which is, unfortunately, still too darn long). The standouts, however, are the two gangsters, played by Richard Poe and Michael Arkin, who predictably stop the show with "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."
Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are gorgeous for the 'real' people, but a bit too reminiscent of the original production's garish costumes for the show within a show. Robin Wagner's set is serviceable, if unexciting. Paul Gemignani (music director) and Don Debesky (orchestrations) provide a thrilling throwback to the days of sweeping show tunes. Michael Blakemore's direction and Kathleen Marshall's choreography rarely disappoint (failing only with an uninspired and lifeless "Where Is The Life That Late I Led?" and a perplexing I Love Lucy-esque grape stomping "Cantiamo D'Amore").
Overall, Kiss Me, Kate is a well-acted, well-sung, well-realized valentine of a classic musical for those who love them and should be seen by anybody who ever bemoaned the fact that they don't make them like they used to.