Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Fiddler on the Roof
Stages Saint Louis

Also see Richard's review of First Lady Suite

Julie Hanson, Carissa Massaro and Stephanie Lynne Mason
An unusually loud cheer came up for actor Bruce Sabath on press night at curtain call: a tribute to his subtle (and somehow, unexpectedly, monumental) performance as Tevye, in a 50th anniversary revival.

Maybe it's just the steady accretion of all his boundless energy, in humor and singing and dancing. It's almost not till the end that you realize what a towering figure this little dairy farmer has become. And it doesn't hurt that most of the audience has already developed a nearly Pavlovian response to the music of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick over the last five decades.

It's hard to see this monumental "Tevye" along the way, as it's gradually being assembled. It's an accumulated effect, from a thousand delicate strokes of characterization, in joy and grief. It's his faith (and his folksy guile) in the face of a revolution in romance, and much worse historical cruelties, that turns musical comedy into epic theater.

That whimsical faith may be the most captivating thing about this particular Tevye: revealed in his monologs, his informal prayers to God. I guess it's just great acting, but how often do we think of great acting and musical comedy in the same breath? Indeed, in spite of all the comedy, and celebration, the show may ultimately come down on the side of drama: as when Mr. Sabath must slowly haul his dairy wagon away for the last time—his family whittled-away by marriage, and anti-Communism, and anti-Semitism. Maybe the show demands a great actor, masquerading as a dour clown.

And when this particular Tevye finally hauls off that dairy wagon, you could easily be forgiven for recalling Berthold Brecht's Mother Courage, with her own wagon and her own shattered family, and the balance of grit and resignation that brings us all toward an uncertain tomorrow. Credit director Michael Hamilton, who's thrown in a little bit of haze in the theater, left over from Tevye's astounding "nightmare" scene, on top of a whole lot of darkness, as Mr. Sabath goes dragging that wagon. And somewhere (seemingly quite far away) is Tevye's good friend God.

After Stages' recent glittering My One and Only and the retina-scorching How To Succeed, the heavy-layered dark exodus here amounts to a whole new kind of dazzling, a kind of shimmering eclipse, but one that's guaranteed to reveal the sun once more.

But, to tell the truth, I usually gravitate toward bigger, showier, giddier shows. And most of Fiddler involves stoic, bundled-up Russian Jews. So for once I have to disagree with the great critic Walter Kerr, who dismissed Fiddler with these well-known words in the old Herald Tribune, a half century ago: "It might be an altogether charming musical, if only the people of Anatevka did not pause every now and then to give their regards to Broadway ..."

But I just have to say, when one of the Cossacks (Erik Keiser) hit that wonderful long high note in the middle of the song "To Life," I was secretly thrilled. Likewise, when Lauren Roesner and Hannah Kiem brought dazzling doom in "The Dream" (as Fruma-Sarah and Grandma Tzeitel) with a whole chorus of mad spirits, a part of me died and went right back to heaven with them.

That chorus is remarkable for its great precision throughout, and occasionally relieves the frustration of an oppressed people—with just enough of the show-biz pizazz that Mr. Kerr disdained. The element of pure entertainment also gives Tevye plenty of room to ruminate, in the show's lonely, quieter moments.

Kari Ely is every bit the master of the stage, as Tevye's wife Golde, even though she talk/sings most of her music. Still, you can learn a lot just from watching her walk across a stage, seeming to do nothing at all. The three oldest daughters are delightful, hoping to bypass tradition and marry whomever they please, beginning with their balletic introduction in "Matchmaker, Matchmaker."

Christopher Limber is great as the butcher, and Nick Orfanella (as the young tailor) is a fine comic beanpole (though this Motel sounds strained already, at the end of "Wonder of Wonders"). Rachel Coloff does nicely as Yente, and Erik Van Tielen and Jason Michael Evans are very magnetic as two more suitors to Tevye's grown daughters.

Based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof continues through October 5, 2014, at the south end of the Kirkwood Recreation Center, 111 South Geyer, in the Robert G. Reim Theatre. For more information go to www.stagesstlouis.com or call the box office at (314) 821-2407.

The Cast
The Fiddler: Paul Sabala*
Tevye (the dairyman): Bruce Sabath*
Golde (his wife): Kari Ely*
Tzeitel: Stephanie Lynne Mason*
Hodel: Julie Hanson*
Chava: Carissa Massaro*
Shprintze: Grace Clark
Bielke: Maria Knasel
Yente (the matchmaker): Rachel Coloff*
Motel (the tailor): Nick Orfanella
Mordcha (the innkeeper): Steve Isom*
Lazar Wolf (the butcher): Christopher Limber*
Rabbi: Bruce Rebold*
Mendel (his son): Aaron Umsted*
Avram (the bookseller): Rich Pisarkiewicz*
Nachum (the beggar): Stephen Barnowski
Yussel (the hatmaker): Alex Puette*
Chaim (the fishmonger): Jonathan Kwock*
Yankel: Ryan Fitzgerald*
Schmuel: Erik Keiser*
Mirala: Lauren Roesner
Rivka: Hannah Kiem*
Shaindel (Motel's mother): Peggy Billo*
Anya: Katie Hamilton-Meier*
Constable: Whit Reichert*
Priest: Alex Puette*
Fyedka: Eric Van Tielen*
Sasha: Erik Keiser*
Perchik (the student): Jason Michael Evans*
Grandma Tzeitel: Hannah Kiem*
Fruma-Sarah: Lauren Roesner
Vladimir: Ryan Fitzgerald*
Pyotr: Jonathan Kwock*
Misha: Alex Puette*
Surcha: Morgan McDonald
Duvidel: Ronan Ryan
Javov: Alex Meuret

The Crew
Director: Michael Hamilton
Original Choreography Reproduction: Gary John LaRosa
Production Stage Manager: Shawn Pryby*
Costume Design: Lou Bird
Scenic Design: James Wolk
Lighting Design: Matthew McCarthy
Orchestral Design: Stuart M. Elmore

* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the professional society of actors and stage managers in the US.

Photo: Peter Wochniak

-- Richard T. Green