Theatre Review: Otterbein’s Luminous Fiddler on the Roof has Charm to Spare
Since debuting in 1964 and becoming the longest-running show on Broadway at the time (still in the Top 20), Fiddler on the Roof, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Hamrick, and book by Joseph Stein adapted from the stories by Sholem Aleichem, has charmed and delighted audiences with its look at the human capacity for joy in the face of adversity and even unspeakable terror. A stunning, near-perfect production, directed by Lenny Leibowitz with music direction by Lori Kay Harvey and choreography by Stella Hiatt Kane, opened on Thursday at Otterbein University.
Fiddler on the Roof follows Teyve (John Stefano), a dairyman with a wife, Golde (Aubree Tally) and five daughters in the little town of Anatevka, on the Eastern Plain of Settlement in the early 20th century right before the Russian Revolution. Charming, well-liked Teyve finds himself on the precipice of a horrifying future fraught with blood and pain for his people as news of pogroms and mass exodus filter to their town. He and Golde are reminded how much scarier the future can be when you have children to worry about, especially when, like the central image of the fiddler, they already work tirelessly just to “scratch out a tune without breaking their necks.”
The joy and the tragedy of the future is embodied by their three oldest daughters. The oldest, Tzeitzel (Lauren Kent) is promised to the widower butcher Lazar Wolf (Jack Labrecque), through an arrangement between Golde and the town matchmaker Yente (a very funny Dana Cullinane) but is in love with her childhood friend, now the tailor, Motel (a charming Connor Cook). Kent’s Tzeitzel is a perpetual delight, a mixture of cynicism and wonder, with a rich voice that cuts like a stiletto like her hilarious, tart counterpoint to the younger girls’ faith in “Matchmaker.” Her two suitors are drawn with warmth and affection like everyone in the town, Labrecque in particular avoids the cliché of the entitled, wealthy, older man and gets real sympathy and big laughs as Lazar Wolf.
Hodel (Natalie Szczerba) with the wit of her father and the steely assurance and resiliency of her Mother falls for University student and radical Perchik (Connor Allston) down from Kiev. Their dueling impatience to change the world and the erotic charge between Szczerba and Allston lights up the stage and interestingly mirrors Teyve and Golde’s interplay, most prominently on “Sunrise, Sunset” lightening and coloring Tally and Stefano’s voices and giving the second act its spine on the gorgeous “Now I Have Everything” and Szczerba’s solo as she goes to join Perchik in Siberia after his arrest, the heartbreaking “Far From the Home I Love.” Most tragically, Chava (Abigail Isom) falls for a kind-hearted member of Russian Orthodox community, Fyedka (Andre Spathelf-Sanders), turning her back on her community even as violence comes directly to Anatevka. In a few strokes, Spathelf-Sanders and Isom make us believe in love in the face of this cruelty and make it genuinely wrenching and sympathetic as Teyve disowns her. In a similar small but pivotal part, Chris Marth’s Constable is rich with “banality of evil” juice, a character who genuinely feels warmth toward Teyve but still calls him a “Jewish dog” without thinking. Who says, “I am sorry,” before leading his men in wrecking Tzeitzel’s wedding, and making us feel it, but not being sorry enough to not do these horrible things and baffled the Jews aren’t grateful for whatever they’re given.
John Stefano, beloved teacher and administrator, is retiring at the end of this academic year as the pre-show announcement told us, and he goes out with a bang. His Teyve is nuanced and gripping and his singing is stunning, one of the finest performances I’ve seen on a stage in Columbus. And Aubree Tally’s Golde goes toe to toe with him, better than holding her own with a fascinating take on maybe the most pivotal character in Fiddler, never fading into the background.
Obviously, much of what accounts for the show’s perennial popularity is the Bock/Harnick score full of infectious songs and witty lyrics. Lori Kay Harvey’s music direction and her orchestra do a lot of heavy lifting, even more than in a typical musical, and do it gracefully with a light touch – there are moments where the music has to foreshadow darkness coming in even as it paints heart-full, anthemic, joy, I’m thinking of one particular instance near the end of the first act when all the hair on the back of my neck stood up as I realized what was happening. It’s a clinic in brilliant accompanying and it’s invisible exactly where it needs to be. Similarly, for a musical originally developed by the great Jerome Robbins, Fiddler on the Roof is an intensely physical show full of dance, and Stella Hiatt Kane’s choreography is bracing in the best way. She and the cast adapt moves any audience expects here but nevermakes it feel like a retread, the edges filled in with wit, from show-stopping numbers like the intimidatingly “cheerful” Russians in the bar during “To Life” and the wine-bottles-on-hats dance during Tzeitzel’s wedding through subtler moments like mops being tossed back and forth during “Matchmaker,” the dance feels natural and dazzling at the same time.
If you’re interested in a classic musical being done as well as you’ll probably ever see it done, don’t hesitate. See this production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Fiddler on the Roof runs through April 16 with performances at 8:00pm Thursday-Saturday and 2:00pm Sunday April 10. For tickets and more info, visit otterbein.edu