|Darren Hurley (Tevye) leading the ensemble in "Tradition."Photo by Ward Ramsdell|
By Tina Arth
Theatre in the Grove’s current production of Fiddler on the Roof is not perfect – it’s something much better. It’s real and alive, with music and dance integrated so smoothly into the narrative that you never have that moment of wondering why exhausted, careworn peasants suddenly look and sound like they are playing hooky from their real gigs at the Imperial Ballet or the Metropolitan Opera House. Director/Choreographer Melanie Shaw has melded her talented cast into a believable microcosm of life for early 20th century Russian Jews and their Czarist oppressors. The show, written by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, is a classic because it so movingly combines the wry humor and the powerful currents of grief of a people trying to maintain their cultural identity as their world is once again torn apart.
The tale is as old as anti-Semitism and as new as the crisis in Syria. While political turmoil and oppression swirl around them, the poor milkman Tevye and his wife Golde just want to raise their family and marry off their five daughters in peace, living their lives according to the traditions handed down from their forebears. The show opens with a powerful ensemble rendition of “Tradition” that immediately conveys the essence of how a patiently beleaguered people have coped with generations of upheaval. As Tevye and Golde’s daughters break with tradition by choosing their own increasingly “inappropriate” spouses, Tevye grudgingly rationalizes his compromises in monologues punctuated by the phrase “on the other hand” – until the third daughter, Chava, elopes with a Gentile and he angrily concludes “there is no other hand!”
The three oldest daughters introduce themes of change through their unorthodox courtships. Playing eldest daughter Tzeitel, Natasha Kujawa injects intelligence and irony into her role as an early feminist, determined to marry for love and able to badger timid fiancé Motel (Dan Bahr) into standing up to Tevye. As second daughter Hodel, Amy Martin evolves from obedient girl to strong and independent woman, willing to leave her world behind when fiancé Perchik (Andy Roberts) is shipped off to Siberia. Martin’s lovely voice brings pathos to the powerful and evocative “Far From the Home I Love.” As third daughter Chava, Rachel May Thomas’ solo dance during Tevye’s “Chava Sequence” beautifully accents his grief at the loss of his favorite daughter. The daughters contrast dramatically with their mother Golde (Wendy Bax), a conventionally downtrodden peasant trying to manage her household with an iron fist. Bax has a gorgeous voice, and is a good enough actress to use it only when the script demands that she show it off (as in the beautiful “Sabbath Prayer” and the always touching “Do You Love Me?”). As Yente the Matchmaker, Jeanine Stassens get many of the show’s funniest lines, and she makes the most of them.
Director Shaw’s staging of “The Dream” is the funniest version I have seen of this comic highlight. The decision to cast an eleven year old as Grandmother Tzeitel was inspired – the tiny, fierce Luella Harrelson keeps the audience in stitches with her frenetic energy, and her costume and makeup effectively disguise her youth. Jennifer Yamashiro’s take on Fruma Sarah is a perfect counterpoint; the character’s physical elevation and tottering gait amp up her already hysterical delivery.
Of course, Fiddler is really Tevye’s show, and Darren Hurley could not be better cast. He avoids the common pitfall of delivering his lines with a heavy accent, choosing instead to inject just a trace of Yiddish flavor into the role. This allows him to create a character, rather than a caricature, to anchor the show. His powerful voice ensures that the musical’s most well-known numbers will stay with the audience long after they leave the theater, but it is his total commitment to Tevye’s thoughtful combination of rigidity and flexibility that makes the performance truly memorable.
The ensemble is exceptionally strong – solid choreography delivered with utter precision, and vocal harmonies that sometimes bring chills, other times tears (as in the evocative “Sunrise, Sunset”). James Grimes’ spare, but cleverly designed set precludes all but the briefest scene-change delays, and Ward Ramsdell’s lighting design enhances the barren beauty of the tiny village.
Audiences still have two more weeks to see one of the finest Fiddlers likely to come their way; this one is definitely worth the drive to Forest Grove for lovers of classic musical theatre.