Fiddler on the Roof
Also see Bob's review of Secret Order
There was more than the usual excitement surrounding the Mustard Seed production of Fiddler on the Roof which opened this weekend. Director Deanna Jent had a new concept for presenting the show: she planned to set it in 1948 with the descendents of Tevye gathering to tell stories of their ancestors' life in Russia.
But apparently she didn't clear this change with MTI (Music Theatre International), who handles licensing for the show. When MTI learned of the proposed changes they nixed them, requiring the cast at short notice to drop the framing story and present the show as written, which includes setting it in Russia in 1905. You can read more about these events at: STLToday.com.
But enough about all that. What's more important is that the Mustard Seed production takes one of the most frequently performed musicals in the repertoire and makes it fresh and new. Performing in the intimate confines of Fontbonne's Black Box Theatre, with a small cast and musical accompaniment consisting of a piano occasionally supplemented by violin, this production places the emphasis on the relationships among the characters.
I like a spectacular production as much as the next person, but Mustard Seed brings something new to the table with their chamber-play approach. I left the theatre with a new appreciation not only for the songs but also for the careful construction of the book and score. It's not exactly news to say that this is a well-written show, but somehow seeing it in a minimal production brought out the clarity of the structure to me in a way that that more elaborate productions had not.
The main casualties of the chamber approach are the dances. Even given the small space the company has to work with, they are about as minimal as possible (with the exception of "The Bottle Dance") short of being cut entirely. Another casualty would be the one-liners that punctuate the dialogue: they do not come across well in this production, consistently dropping into the black hole of audience non-response. I'm not sure whymaybe they work better in the context of a large production, or maybe the reason lay in the small crowd on a Sunday evening or the fact that the material is so familiar by now. In any event I'm not blaming the cast, who delivers every line clearly.
If I had to pick one element that particularly stands out in this production it's choral singing. I don't think I've ever heard a more beautiful rendition of "Sabbath Prayer," and "Tradition" is also wonderfully precise. There's a beauty to unamplified voices in a small space which is often lost on a big stage when everyone's singing through body mics. The company also does an impressive job on the nightmare sequence despite working with not much more than their voices and some veils (quite the opposite approach to that taken in the 1971 film, and Mustard Seed's version is the clear winner in my book).
Among individual performers Jerry Russo as Tevye is a clear standout, bringing an expansive demeanor and a beautifully clear voice to the role. I knew he could act since I saw him in Glengarry Glen Ross at HotCity but had no idea he could also sing (not a criticism: clearly that lacuna reflects on me rather than him). Lavonne Byers as Golde provides an acerbic counterpart to Russo, and Eleanor Mullin puts a lot of character to her roles as Yente and Grandma Tzeitel. Among the younger generation, Natasha Toro stands out as Chava, Fruma-Sarah and Bielke (there's a reason that in this production you never see more than three of Tevye's daughters at once), and Paul Pagano gives a memorable performance as Perchik and the Beggar.
The set by Dunsi Dai is a marvel of minimalist design: basically a wood floor with a platform and suggestions of a roof on either side, with the audience seated tennis court-style on the other two sides. Props are minimal and are moved on and off stage by the performers. One welcome by-product of this set-up is that the show moves quickly from scene to scene, once again clarifying just how well it is constructed.
Mustard Seed Theatre will present Fiddler on the Roof through November 22, 2009 in the Black Box Theatre of Fontbonne University. Ticket information is available from firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 314-719-8060.
* Member of Actor's Equity Association