Is God Laughing With You or At You?: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

Photo Credit: Reagle Music Theatre; Scott Wahle sings “If I Were a Rich Man.”

presented by Reagle Music Theatre
book by Joseph Stein and a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
based on the stories by Sholem Aleichem
directed by Kirby Ward
choreography by Jerome Robbins, recreated by Susan M. Chebookjian
music directed by Dan Rodriguez
conducted by Jeffrey Leonard

Waltham, MA
July 11th – July 21st, 2013
Reagle Music Theatre Facebook Page

Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Waltham) The tradition of Jewish wit has been honed through years of hardship, and the best productions of Fiddler on the Roof capture that teetering line between joy and pain.  It’s not an easy task.  To pull it off, you need an expert master of ceremonies to play Tevye, the central protagonist; through his lens, we are pulled into the world of a hardscrabble Jewish village eking out an existence on the margins of pre-revolutionary Russia.  The task is made more difficult by the fact that the 1971 film version of the play features an iconic portrayal of Tevye by Israeli actor Chaim Topol.  Topol kills it with an original scene-chewing performance, creating a man at once both larger than life and lost in the currents of change.  To go down Topol’s beaten path for Tevye is folly, even though that is what most audience-members expect, and many productions succumb to this error.

Luckily, Reagle Theatre’s production of Fiddler answers the challenge with Scott Wahle, who provides an evocative performance that is breathtaking in its command of the stage. Wahle creates his own deep and unique portrait of Tevye, and through it we can capture a glimpse of Jewish wit at its finest.  From the moment he walks onstage, Wahle’s Tevye swerves quickly and seamlessly between vaudevillian, philosophical, joyous and heartbroken. Wahle holds back when we expect his portrayal to go over the top and pushes when it will surprise us.  From Wahle’s portrayal, we see that this play is one long version of The Giving Tree, as Tevye watches the gulf between his plans and reality widen, and all he can do is accept it and give away his most precious and sacred possessions.  Perhaps the most touching moments of the play are when Tevye is alone on stage, lobbying, teasing, pleading and cursing his God, yet knowing none of his protestations will change a thing.

Wahle is the metronome of this play, keeping a playful beat, and the orchestra that surrounds him almost always keeps up.  The best supporting actor of this talented cast might actually be Steve Gilliam’s topsy-turvy set design.  Gilliam creates a visceral and grounded village with mismatched, weathered clapboards, but then frames the scene with a playful, colorful border reminiscent of some of the best artwork by illustrator Simms Taback.

There are many pillars in this cast who help Wahle and Gilliam erect this play’s tent.  Peter Mill is the best among these, creating a wide-eyed, scared and hungry tailor in Motel, whose puzzled earnestness makes him a joy to watch.  Nora Fox, Gillian Mariner Gordon and Alexa Lebersfeld create a showstopping moment in the song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” as Tevye’s three oldest daughters begin the song joyously as if they are preparing for a ball, and then slow down as they realize tradition seals their fate.  In the end, the song feels like a sweet funeral march.

Not everything works; Daniel Forest Sullivan mistakenly goes for earnest rather than revolutionary as Perchik, for example, unintentionally doubling the character of Motel.  Because of this, Perchik lacks the piped piper feel needed to pull one of Tevye’s daughters, Hodel (Gillian Mariner Gordon), away from the strong pull of tradition.  And some of the stage crew might need a brush-up on the perils of audience sightlines.  But even the moments that don’t work in this play feel authentic, as this production eschews perfection for earnestness and fun.  The strong cast, good show-numbers and energetic choreography always keep us laughing to keep from crying.

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