PBT's "Fiddler on the Roof": One in a Minyan

Allyn Morse, Katy Corbus, Michael Bernardi, Maya Jacobson & Jenny Lester
in Priscilla Beach Theatre's "Fiddler on the Roof" 

The stakes were high; would the rich history of the barn known as Priscilla Beach Theatre, with its ghostly presences of Gloria Swanson, Paul Newman et al, live anew? Pause for a hearty and heartfelt sigh of relief. Fifty years after its Broadway debut, this company is presenting a lovely revival of the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof”. Back in 1964 this concept was considered a risky one when Composer Jerry Bock, Lyricist Sheldon Harnick and librettist Joseph Stein first proposed it. In the publication of the book for their earlier musical collaboration, “She Loves Me”, they alluded to a work they were planning based on “Tevye and His Daughters” by Ukranian Sholem Aleichem. A musical set in a Jewish shtetl, about a poor milkman with five dowerless daughters amidst pogroms in czarist Russia? Crazy, no? Yet it ran almost eight years on Broadway, having received ten Tony nominations, winning nine (including Best Musical). The 1971 film version earned eight Oscar nominations and won three of them. It has been revived on Broadway several times since, and is due for yet another this coming season. Clearly this work is, as Tevye himself might say, one in a minyan.

A large part of its success, then and now, is the depth of the book by Stein, an age-old tale about love, of a father for his children (and their love for him in return) and his love for his religious faith, and what happens when these come into conflict with one another. The scene is set by arguably the most brilliant opening number ever conceived for any musical, “Tradition”. The curtain barely goes up before the audience knows how important traditions (especially religious tenets, including taboos) were to Tevye the Milkman (here magnificently played by Michael Bernardi). Yet he is surrounded in his own home by creeping modernism. While his wife of twenty-five years, Golde (the radiant Allyn Morse) is old-fashioned and superstitious, this is not true of his daughters. The eldest Tzeitel (the wonderful Jenny Lester) seeks to marry Motel (the extraordinary Philip Feldman) without the services of the local matchmaker Yente (the hysterical Emily Suuberg); the next in line, Hodel (a lovely Katy Corbus) plans to marry the revolutionary Perchik (the beautifully-voiced Jeremy Fassler) without her father’s permission, only his blessing; then, the ultimate crisis, the next daughter Chava (the poignant Maya Jacobson) wants to marry outside the faith, and to one of their oppressors at that, the Russian, Fyedka (a Gentile, the gentle yet firm Jeremiah O'Sullivan). Tevye struggles to hold onto his culture and beliefs, as his small world changes around him at a rapid pace with conflicting crises around love and family, as well as pride and, yes, tradition. How much can Tevye bend until he finally breaks? Author Alisa Solomon, in her fascinating book “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof”, notes that Tevye’s muttered blessing to Chava conveyed through her sister Tzeitel (left unresolved in the original stories by Aleichem) and in the presence of Fyedka, “in recognition of their marriage, reluctant as it is, catapults him across time”. Teyve emphasizes, at the close of that opening number, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as-- as a fiddler on the roof!”

One might criticize such devotion to traditions (especially those that morph all too frequently into laws), as expressed in the song “Sabbath Prayer” (“strengthen them, O Lord, and keep them from the stranger’s ways”), but it’s still a very popular story, with a phenomenal multi-leveled score. Bock and Harnick were never better. Who can ever forget “If I Were a Rich Man” (never sung more exhuberantly than here by Bernardi), “Miracle of Miracles” (never performed more powerfully or with such chemistry as by Feldman and Lester), and to “To Life” (rarely as lively as here) , or the poignant “Do You Love Me?”, “Far From the Home I Love”, and the finale, “Anatevka”? And then there’s “Sunrise, Sunset”, in a class by itself, with its exquisitely moving wedding scene. It was an evening of great moments, from the trio of “Matchmaker” (never as enjoyably staged and executed as here), to the awe-inspiring vocal chops of Samuel Patch, the exquisite dancing by Jacobson in “Chavaleh”, to the truly show-stopping turns by the marvelous Caitlin Donohoe as Grandma Tzeitel and the aforementioned Suuberg as Fruma Sarah in “The Dream”.

The score is given full force by the performances of the entire cast, led by the wonderful Bernardi, who emerges as larger than life without ever becoming a cartoon, a perfect Tevye in his warmth and wisdom. He’s firmly backed up by a strong Morse and a hilarious yet quite humanized Adam Andrianopoulos as the Butcher Lazar Wolf. Under the sensitive and detailed direction of Ron Fassler (who shows his intimate appreciation of the show at every turn), the huge cast of over two dozen is fabulous both individually and as a unit. They include the very natural four younger actors: the other two daughters, Shprintze (Emma Sundstrom) and Bielke (Emma Gilmore), and Oliver Trask and Dimitri Jesse, who represent the future of the community (and that of Priscilla Beach Theatre as well). The dancers, especially Charlotte Hovey (the production's Choregrapher), Benjamin Gibson, Bryan George Rowell, and Ira Colby, created some gravity-defying moves. Then there are the stalwart Eli Hovey as Mendel, the versatile Emily Borges as Mordcha, the menacing Joshua Patino as the Constable, and, in the most charming touch, the on-stage presence of a real live fiddler (Lilly Innella), invoking the 1908 Chagall painting of “The Dead Man”, a fiddler on a rooftop, which initially inspired Stein’s book. All of the technical credits are extraordinary, from the clever and fluid Scenic Design by Kelleher Fine Builders to the perfect Costume Design from the genius of Richard Danehy, to the complex Lighting Design by Kasey Sheehan (especially in “The Dream”), to the meticulous Music Direction by Christopher Ricci leading an eight-piece orchestra.

“Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles”, indeed. There is, in the end, only one negative reaction to this production: it has to end (though there are a few tickets left for the run which ends July 25th). This production provides a “Fiddler” of basic simplicity yet also great beauty, one for all ages, performed by a predominantly youthful troupe (though ranging in age from ten to seventy-one). As Tevye himself might put it, it’s a blessing. And as Solomon puts it in her historical book: “(Tevye) wonders if (the townsfolk) might some day meet on a train, or ‘in Odessa, or in Warsaw, or maybe even in America’. In all those places, and far beyond, the world has met-and embraced-him. He belongs nowhere. Which is to say, everywhere."

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