freeFall's Fiddler on the Roof bucks tradition

The new production begs questions about tradition, both through its story and staging.

click to enlarge IF HE WERE A RICH MAN: David Mann stars as Tevye. - Bryan Leighty,
Bryan Leighty,
IF HE WERE A RICH MAN: David Mann stars as Tevye.

I’m beginning to understand freeFall Theatre’s aesthetic where musicals are concerned. The idea is to use a large cast on a small-scale, sparsely furnished set, to costume these actors vividly, and then to depend on the plot and music to fill in for the missing environments. If the gambit succeeds, we in the audience are treated to an intense artistic experience, happening somewhere in the space between actor and spectator. If it fails, we’re left feeling that something central is missing, that the encounter was too minimalist. The game is won or lost in our imagination.

Fiddler on the Roof mostly succeeds. Its large cast almost convinces us that we’re in the Russian town of Anatevka, where material poverty is everywhere but faith in God is rich and unshakable. Its hero Tevye, if not the charismatic charmer we want, is still a likable enough fellow, and his three daughters are ingratiating, as are most of the other townspeople. True, the first third of the show feels shallow — writer Joseph Stein’s fault, not freeFall’s — but the wonderful songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are delivered persuasively, beginning with “Tradition” and peaking at “Sunrise, Sunset” by way of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were A Rich Man.” The silly hand-sized puppets used to stand in for minor players aren’t very interesting, but the oversize Bunruku figure in the Fruma-Sarah nightmare sequence is impressively surrealistic. Finally, director Eric Davis’ decision to place musicians on stage throughout both acts seems perfectly sensible — why shouldn’t there be a bassist and woodwind player sharing space with a butcher and a milkman? All in all, this is a Fiddler that pleases but doesn’t thrill, that has a few stunning high points and is otherwise just adequate. It won’t change your life, but neither will it waste your time.

The performance of David Mann as Tevye is, naturally, pivotal. The last time I saw Mann on stage, he was the spectacularly depraved Emcee in freeFall’s Cabaret. His Tevye isn’t nearly as effective. True, he looks the part with his long grey beard and covered head, but he never really seizes the role the way he did in Cabaret, and unfortunately, he never has complete control of his Yiddish accent. One wants central Tevye to own the emotions of the audience, but Mann’s impersonation lacks force, and offers nothing new in the way of interpretation. His singing is terrific, though: he’s a delight in “If I Were A Rich Man,” and can break your heart in “Sunrise, Sunset.” Still, if Tevye’s not running the show, no-one is — and that’s one of the reasons I have reservations about my experience. In fact, in a 20-member cast (including actor/musicians) only a few performers are so right that they leave a lasting impression.

There’s Wayne LeGette, who as the butcher Lazar Wolf is reasonably miffed over losing his match with Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel; there’s Georgia Mallory Guy, who as Tzeitel is the epitome of a passionate and opinionated young woman; and there’s Nick Orfanella, who as the tailor Motel, seems just the sort of awkward, nerdish Hebrew student that the shtetls of East Europe were once filled with (and who were murdered en masse during the Holocaust).

Fine performances are also turned in by Matt McGee as the Rabbi, Anna Maureen Tobin as Tzeitel’s sister Chava, and Lucas Wells as young revolutionary Perchik. But most of the other cast members are hard to believe in, and Angela Hoerner’s excellent period costumes aren’t magical enough to do their job for them.

Then again, Fiddler offers so many unforgettable songs, it almost doesn’t matter if you’re not carried away by the acting. And Rick D’Onofrio’s choreography is superb. The segment during which all the production’s strengths comes together is the marriage of Tzeitel and Motel: Here the newlyweds are, under a canopy, while Tevye and his wife Golde, accompanied by the rest of the company, sing of their rapid transit from children to adults; and here’s the married couple being lifted on chairs by the assembled merrymakers, who dance and frolic as if the Czar weren’t plotting their dispersion. Further, the onstage musicians are splendid: Michael Raabe on piano and accordion, Nicholas J. White on guitar and mandolin, Diane Volpe on violin, Irv Goldberg on bass, George Linakis on clarinet, and Burt Rushing on percussion. I don’t know that the four small video screens added much to the experience though.

I imagine that director Davis knew when he started work on Fiddler that his main job would be redeeming it from over-familiarity and cliché. He’s done that somewhat — but in other places, this version seems lackluster, almost generic. Can I still recommend it? Yes, for its several high points.

But expect some inconsistencies.

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