Thursday, January 26, 2012

Millbrook: "Fiddler on the Roof"

Something right is going on in Millbrook! Extra chairs are being set up for virtually every performance of Karen Black's directorial debut of Fiddler on the Roof with the Millbrook Community Players, and enthusiastic standing ovations are common.

Based on Sholem Aleichem's Tevye & His Daughters stories, its simple choreography [Beth Crumbley] and minimalist musical accompaniment on piano [Katy Gerlach] and "fiddles" [Esther Hart & Benjamin Simon], Ms. Black's intelligently edited production comes in at about 2 1/2 hours for its 2 acts.

Since the multiple prize-winning musical hit Broadway decades ago, it has been an international favorite in both professional and amateur theatres, due in large part to its memorable score -- "Sunrise, Sunset", "Matchmaker", "If I Were a Rich Man", and "Tradition" among the featured songs -- and its beloved central character Tevye, whose conversations with God and his own conscience reveal the humanity of a Russian Jewish peasant who is faced with three of his daughters rebelling against the tradition of arranged marriages and the Tzar's pogroms that persecuted the Jews.

The play begins with the citizens of the small remote shtetl of Anatevka -- led by Tevye [a robust David Kensen] -- singing a rousing version of "Tradition", and establishing the long respected divisions of responsibility in the household -- the papa (the head, the decision maker), the mama, the children, et al -- and leading to the introduction of Golde [Judi Brown as Tevye's understated but strong-willed wife] and the local matchmaker Yente [Sharon Demuth embuing the role with several stereotypical and largely comical vocal & physical mannerisms] who comes with news that Lazar Wolf [Mark McGuire], a rich butcher, likes their eldest daughter Tzeitel [Rachel Russo]...a good "match" were it not for the fact that he is old and that Tzeitel likes the young tailor Motel [Jon Greenawalt]. The "match" is agreed however, so when Tevye realized that Tzeitel won't be swayed and that love ought to be the reason for marriage, he must save face by getting Lazar Wolf to agree to not marry his daughter.

Further along in the play, two more daughters flaunt tradition by arranging their own marriages; "unheard of" says Tevye...but he relents on Hodel [Jubilee Lofgren] marrying the young teacher Perchik [Matt Jordan] despite his revolutionary views of the world and his passion for educating even girls; however, when Chava [Shelby Tennimon] wants to marry Fyedka [Brooks Burnett] outside the Jewish faith, Tevye can not bear it and disowns her: she is "dead to him".

Times are changing -- it's 1905, and the modern world is upon them. Does one go along with the times, or does one cling to the traditions of thousands of years? The inevitability of change is a major concern in this play, and Tevye's soul-searching moments punctuate the journey all are going on. Is there a way to sustain tradition and simultaneously shift into the modern world? Tevye regularly tries to look at both sides; while interpreting the Bible with misquotes galore and home-spun wisdom, he posits one side and then says "on the other hand", giving credence to opposing views. -- Along the way, he is supported and controlled by the no-nonsense practical advice given in deadpan truthfulness by Ms. Brown's Golde, and when he relents, it is always on the side of doing what is best, regardless of tradition.

Though the peasants have lived in relative harmony with their Russian overlords, the constublary and its power lurk in plain sight, and ultimately evict the citizens who must find new places to live as the play ends.

It has been an entertaining journey, peopled by characters who get us to care about their very human conflicts of family and love, ones which reach into every home and that are often out of balance, but which can be brought together by tradition and joy symbolized by the fiddler.