Sholom Aleichem’s story of a poor milkman, Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his struggles to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions against outside influences encroaching on his family’s lives seems an unlikely premise for a musical.
However, nearly 52 years after it first opened on Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof still retains its relevance and emotional power, due in part to the Joseph Stein’s brilliantly concise book, Sheldon Harnick’s superb Lyrics and Jerry Bock’s glorious musical score, and of course, Jerome Robbins luminous choreography which the cast must perform as ordinary villager’s dancing (rather than dancers dancing).
But above all, the success of any production of Fiddler on the Roof rests on the shoulders of the actor who plays the central role of Tevye, one of the great Broadway musical roles. For twenty years, after he first introduced Tevye to Australia in 1967, Hayes Gordon was the definitive Tevye for generations of Australian theatre–goers. He performed the role in productions by both J.C.Williamsons and The Australian Opera. Interestingly, Anthony Warlow played the role of Fyedka in the 1984 Australian Opera revival production led by Gordon.
In 1998, Topol rekindled Australia’s love affair with Fiddler on the Roof, when he brought his acclaimed interpretation of Tevye to Australia for a Melbourne season, returning in 2005 to tour with the show throughout Australia and New Zealand for the next two years.
Now, in 2016, Anthony Warlow gets his opportunity to stamp his mark on the role of Tevye, in a brand new production directed by Roger Hodgeman. Warlow is simply mesmerising as Tevye. Fresh from his Broadway triumphs, he draws on his considerable acting skills to create a character which holds his audience in thrall from curtain rise to final bows.
They chuckle through his intimate soliloquys with God; they laugh outright at his impatient responses to the hectoring of his wife, Golde; sympathise with his graceful acquiescence to the pleas of his eldest daughter to marry the man of her choice; grieve with him as he painfully farewells his second daughter on her journey to Siberia to be with the man she loves; and share his distraught roar of despair as he realises that he can bend no further to allow his third daughter to marry outside their faith. It’s a towering, finely nuanced, bravura performance which will long be remembered by a new generation of theatre-goers lucky enough to experience it.
Not so successful is the casting of Sigrid Thornton as Tevye’s wife, Golde. A curious choice for the role, because although she looks lovely and has a delightful stage presence and a passable singing voice, is she able to convince that she has slaved alongside Tevye for twenty five years in primitive conditions to bring up their five daughters. Through no fault of her own she simply looks and sounds too glamorous and lightweight.
Teagan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers, as their three older daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, each delight with strong individual characterisations especially evident in their trio Matchmaker, Matchmaker. Swayne also provided a memorable highlight with her touching interpretation of Far From the Home I Love.
Lior is well cast as the gormless, though industrious, tailor, Motel, almost exploding with happiness in Miracle of Miracles. Blake Bowden, as the revolutionist, Perchik, brought a fine voice to his solo Now I Have Everything, but an unfortunate tendency to shout his dialogue, especially in his scene with Tevye, lessoned the effectiveness of his characterisation. Fyedka was winningly portrayed by Jensen Overend, but the curious miss-match in height between he and Jessica Vickers as Chava, made their scenes together somewhat awkward.
That Joseph Stein’s book contains not one superfluous word is beautifully demonstrated by Mark Mitchell as Lazar Wolfe, the butcher on whom Tevye reneges on his promise of the hand in marriage of his eldest daughter, and Nicki Wendt, as the matchmaker, Yente. Both make the most of every word at their disposal to create fine comic performances.
Hodgeman has wisely resisted the temptation to update the show, eschewing clever stage effects and superfluous nods towards contemporary relevance in favour to going back to taws, burnishing the components, and letting the show speak for itself.
Richard Robert’s jigsaw cut-out set design, sympathetically lit by Paul Jackson, does away with the revolving stage by enclosing the action on three sides. Despite some ingenious aspects, there are also awkward scene changes, and for some scenes the setting looked sterile and lacking in atmosphere.
Choreographer, Dana Jolly has lovingly re-produced the original Jerome Robbins choreography to showcase the brilliance of the original concept in which the cast must perform as ordinary villagers dancing, rather than as dancers dancing. Her adjustments to accommodate the new setting are tasteful and superbly performed by the company. Kellie Dickerson, with the help of new musical arrangements, manages to make her comparatively small orchestra sound much larger than it is.
What has been achieved is a production striking in its simplicity, but delivering maximum emotional punch, with a fine cast who have had the opportunity to mature into their roles, with fine performances destined to become treasured memories for a whole new generation of theatre-goers.
Fiddler on the Roof
Capitol Theatre, 13 Campbell Street, Haymarket (Sydney)
Performance: Wednesday 13 April 2016 – 8.00pm
Season continues to 8 May 2016
Bookings: 1300 723 038 or online at: www.ticketmaster.com.au
For more information, visit: www.fiddlerontherooftour.com for details.
Image: Anthony Warlow and Cast of Fiddler on the Roof – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Bill Stephens