AISLE SAY Berkshires


Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed and Choreographed by Gary John La Rosa
(Jerome Robbins’ original choreography reproduced)
Starring Brad Oscar and Joanna Glushak
Barrington Stage Company
June 13- July 14

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


Fiddler on the Roof is one of the handful of musicals cursed by its fame and familiarity. Perhaps among a trio or quintet of classics that people talk about having seen too many times, even if they have never seen it once. A real shame, this, since Fiddler, which I saw in a warm and embracing production at Barrington Stage, in Pittsfield MA, is possibly the greatest of the traditional (and not at all traditional, to which I will return) musicals ever written. It lacks the glamour and sophistication of My Fair Lady, of course, and it resists the earnest goodness characterized by the major works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Fiddler precedes the era of cynicism that Stephen Sondheim revealed in his breakthrough, Company, and which he continues to explore. The writing team of Bock and Harnick (Joseph Stein, the book writer tends to be lost in the discussion for no good reason) came along at the time that musicals were transforming from pure entertainment to a major voice addressing social and political injustices and corruption. Fiddler was also running parallel to the entirely traditional Mame, among others, that helped audiences to separate it from the pack. All this by way of saying that a return visit to Fiddler was well timed for me: I’d seen it twice, in London in 1970 and at the Stratford Festival in Ontario about 10-15 years ago. The former version was part of the international franchise at the time, Alfie Bass playing Tevye, and the latter as part of the Stratford repertory season, starring Brent Carver in a much-lauded production that I found entirely lacking in anything Jewish, European or anything else that might add flavour to the piece.


The Barrington Stage production reproduces Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, which is part of the contract theatres sign for any professional production, but there is nothing slavish about its application by director-choreographer, Gary John La Rosa. The iconic imagery that Robbins imprinted remains smart, often mesmerizing (the entrance of the company and throughout “Tradition”, the opening number) and unapologetically drawn from other sources (the final image of Tevye pulling his cart as the company circles the stage to represent their expulsion is surely some kind of nod to Brecht’s final image in Mother Courage, albeit the latter doesn’t draw upon the ensemble – Courage drags her life’s work and baggage without anyone to assist). In between there are those glimpses that conjure the previous stagings – in particular, the three daughters dancing with their mops during “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”.


But the current production is not itself a franchise lease-out. It is a staging of its own and brings an emotional weight that both informs and satisfies. In a musical that examines a world changing in ways that will challenge ideas, values and mores, Fiddler is anything but traditional. And this is where its long-running history (both in the initial Broadway run and the decades since) is fascinating and important. Yes, there is plenty in the script and score that belongs to its time and place: scene-song or scene-song-punch line-blackout was a familiar and predictable structure that audiences expected. But the essence of the work is its themes of traditional lives, family values (when that phrase wasn’t a political slogan), the new voice of youth that would not be silenced or summarily overruled by parents or elders and an acknowledgement that, hard as it might be, change is inevitable and, occasionally, staggeringly so. That is absolutely not what musical had been before.


Rodgers and Hammerstein had certainly aimed their hefty sights on human themes in their major works, “South Pacific” perhaps most of all. And there is no doubt a legacy from that work that inspired others. “West Side Story” had certainly determined to change the rules, and there’s no surprise, then, to know that Robbins had led that particular charge, more than ably assisted by producer Harold Prince, who also produced “Fiddler”. And Prince, it must be added, started his own directing career soon after the Tevye clan took over the Broadway scene, most definitely influenced by his earlier years with the very-greats of the Broadway tradition. (The act one closer in “Fiddler” is his template for the act one closer to “Cabaret”, which followed a few years later and was another groundbreaking achievement in terms of form and especially in terms of content that could go against expectation without sacrificing its commercial appeal.)


But back to Barrington Stage.


This company dedicates itself to quality work in a wide range of styles. They do musicals very well and ground them in the lovely main stage venue that is their principal home. Jack Mehler has wisely learned from the original Boris Aronson design without co-opting it. The abstract images on the backdrop are enough for us to recognize the painterly world of the village of Anatevka and the few set pieces that represent houses (interior and exterior) are moved about the stage and suggest storybook imagery. The costumes (Michael Bottari/Ronald Case), perhaps too neat and tidy, ably delineate characters and social groups. The efficiency of this large company and the even larger story they are connected to moves with precision and spritely tempo – this is true of both the spoken and musical components – and La Rosa generates a forward momentum that overtakes the story’s characters in the right proportions.


Ultimately, any production of Fiddler will look to its Tevye for leadership and strength, and Brad Oscar is both smart and canny casting. Oscar is possessed of a large and warm voice that he exploits without ever boasting. His personal ease, charm and willingness to throw away what others might (and have) hammered home, draws us closer to the man who, by the end of the play, must provoke us to consider our own ethical rules. He does this and he does this with honest restraint. In the early scenes, he seemed less emotionally weighed down than most other Tevyes, but that served him and the entire production by growing into the man he was becoming – a man with a large family, a man who rightly assumed that he was consumed with daily living rather than with matters of deciding what the rules for daily living might have to be. Oscar’s scenes with his daughters, Hodel and Chana, are the tough ones, of course, and they play with a simplicity that avoids the sentiment that could so easily overwhelm them.


Joanna Glushak is a commanding Golde, a presence to match her Tevye without resorting to shtick or theatrics. “Do You Love Me?” is a surprisingly poignant moment in this production – surprising because it is played with utter simplicity and without a coyness that I’ve seen tacked on in other incarnations. Stephanie Lynne Mason, as Hodel, is splendid both in acting and singing. Her strengths embolden the character and never shift into self-conscious presentation.


So, yes, I am very glad to have seen this production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and very pleased to add another Barrington Stage experience to my Berkshires itinerary.


I do have one caveat about the show’s staging, and I have no idea of this is aimed at Robbins or La Rosa: in at least three or four musical duets, the leading singer moves from the character to whom, and with whom, he/she has been playing to downstage center. The move makes no sense and, worse, breaks whatever relationship has been established between characters. As the actors are all wearing microphones, they needn’t come closer to us so we can hear. What the director loses in the process is the power he has succeeded in establishing just moments before. And one other, minor too – the singing of “Anatevka”, like may of the costumes and especially the men’s hats, was much too clean, carefully phrased and flawlessly executed – “Fiddler on the Roof” is best when the rough edges are given their full worth.


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