For the first time ever Fiddler on the Roof arrived onstage at the award-winning Goodspeed Opera in East Haddam, Connecticut to tremendous acclaim from the Opening Night audience and the media. This is not only a top Broadway-quality production in every way, but is possibly the finest – of many outstanding shows - in the theater’s 51 years of preserving the great American Musical.
Rob Ruggiero has created an intimate retelling of this "L'Chaim — To Life!" show with his exceptional talent and skills as a director and storyteller. Each member of the cast, under Rob’s guiding light, is singularly and collectively superb.
This is an emotionally moving evening in the theater, with exquisite acting, gorgeous vocals, unbelievably stunning and acrobatic choreography and a huge dose of ‘heart’ that is always real without a hint of forced or contrived sentimentality.
Does a story about Russian villagers and their longing for comfort, freedom, family and love make a great musical? You bet it does. It’s about tradition that is present in families and groups of every origin. Everyone will easily identify with and react emotionally to this joyous, life-affirming musical treasure.
The show opened with the dazzling and exuberant song, “Tradition,” which brought thunderous applause and cheering from the audience. It set the tone and the pace for the rest of the show. The glorious and melodic music by Jerry Bock and wise and witty lyrics by Sheldon Harnick delight with one memorable and hummable song after another.
The family patriarch, Tevye, played by the luminous Adam Heller, (a star-quality Broadway actor who previously played Pseudelous in Goodspeed’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) sings the familiar "If I Were a Rich Man," with a special poignancy. His interpretation of Tevye is uniquely his own. Heller gives an incomparable performance as the exuberant and funny Tevye who is riled by conflicting thoughts and madcap actions in dealing with his family, neighbors and the Czar’s functionaries.
The sweet "Sunrise, Sunset," lovely "Matchmaker" and life’s anthem “L’Chaim” are all sung with emotional truth and spirit by this cast that perfectly represents a village and a family. The townspeople of Anatevka, where "Tradition" is embraced by most and challenged by the strong-willed young people, go about their lives of determined survival. Local milkman Tevye sees his daughters fall in love during a terrible time – especially for the Jewish people - on the eve of the Russian Revolution, as the Czar is about to evict all Jews from their villages.
The book by Joseph Stein, which is based on Sholem Aleichem stories by special permission of Arnold Perl, is filled with well-crafted dialogue and plotting that gives the actors an opportunity to dig deep to create fully realized characters.
As Tevye’s wife, Golde, Lori Wilner, another leading Broadway veteran, keeps us delighted as she lovingly bosses Tevye and their five daughters with resigned angst. In the duet, “Do You Love Me?” she allows us a peek into the woman underneath the long-suffering wife. Cheryl Stern makes her Goodspeed debut as Yente/Grandma Tzeitel. Cheryl leaves little doubt about what kind of a person Yente is – a meddling busybody, who is much less subtle than that other famous matchmaker, Dolly Levi. Miss Stern gets all the laughs that Yenta deserves. She’s a nudge who meddles relentlessly and without a bit of vulnerability – survival is her only goal.
David Perlman is an exuberant love-sick Motel the tailor in love with Tevye's daughter, Tzeitel, played by actress Barrie Kreinik. Deliciously golden-voiced and fine actor Elizabeth DeRosa is daughter Hodel. Sister Chava is wonderfully sung by Jen Brissman. Handsome and viral Russian suitor Fyedka is played by Timothy Hassler in his Goodspeed debut. Revolutionary Perchik is created with all the fire of a reactionary by Abdiel Vivancos. Delightful John Payonk, who towers over everyone in the cast, plays the butcher Lazar Wolf with an enormous voice and stage presence to match his size. The littlest daughters are charming Joy Del Valle as Shprintze and Allegra Rosa as Bielke. The entire cast has a chemistry which adds a great measure of believability and action to the show.
Unsure of how to pronounce all these unfamiliar names? All will be revealed when you see the show. (Here’s a hint – Motel is not a highway sleep-stop, but is pronounced Mot’l).
It would be a criminal act to exclude the name of any member of the ensemble: their dancing is without flaw (the breathtaking bottle dance is not to be missed), and their voices soar in joyous harmony. Matthew Amira as Avram, Will Burton – a superb dancer, Max Chucker, who’s the expert Fiddler and roof-sitter; Michael J. Farina as Mordcha the tavern keeper, and Joy Hermalyn as the giant, ghostly apparition Fruma-Sarah who scares the wits out of Tevye and Golde in the dream sequence. Delightfully droll Jeremy Lawrence plays the almost dim-witted Rabbi, and Darren Matthias is the fierce but reluctantly kind-hearted Russian constable. Other ensemble members include Jeanette Minson, Curtis Schroeger who does a Russian solo dance and Dereck D. Seay. Charles South plays Mendel and Jesse Swimm is Nacham. Eileen Tepper plays Shandel and the swings are Rob Montgomery and Paige Sommerer. Last, but never least, is 12-year-old Grace Dodd, understudy for the part of Bielke.
Every year when we see a show directed by Rob Ruggiero, who is a favorite of Goodspeed audiences for such hits as Carousel, Show Boat, Camelot, 1776 and last season’s The Most Happy Fella, we say “This is the best thing that Rob has ever done!” And that has now been going on for years. Parker Esse again joins forces with Ruggiero as choreographer. They previously teamed up for Goodspeed’s successful The Most Happy Fella and Carousel.
Scenic Designer Michael Schweikardt has created a minimalist set that perfectly infers the simplicity and bleakness of life in Russia at the turn of the last century – and hasn’t actually changed much today from our personal experience in that country. Alejo Vietti’s costume design, whose work can now be seen on Broadway in the Tony-nominated Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, keeps the villager’s clothes simple, clean and well-worn to further define character. Lighting Design is by John Lasiter, who created last season’s The Most Happy Fella. His subtle use of sunrise-sunset lighting perfectly fits the mood of peasant village life. Sound Design is once again expertly created by Jay Hilton, who is also set and lighting supervisor. He’s now in his 29th hit season at Goodspeed. Every word can be heard, no lyric is misunderstood. The sound is perfection.
The Music Director for Fiddler on the Roof is master music-maker Michael O’Flaherty, who is in his 23rd season at Goodspeed musicals. What a pit orchestra! It sounds like a major symphony but is usually a handful of musicians who deftly play many instruments to make each production’s notes soar. F. Wade Russo is Assistant Music Director, and Dan DeLange, who has created outstanding the orchestrations for numerous Goodspeed productions, is once again on board. It’s beautifully honed teamwork that makes this and all productions at Goodspeed Musicals such a joy to see and hear.
The original production of Fiddler opened in 1964 and was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning nine, including Best musical, score, book, direction and choreography. It was the first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances. Fiddler held the record for almost ten years until Grease set a new record.
Michael P. Price, producer of Fiddler on the Roof, and executive director of Goodspeed musicals since 1969, has announced his retirement. He took charge of what was then a summer theater and developed it into a major regional theater with a well-earned national reputation. Nineteen of his shows have transferred to Broadway, including Man of La Mancha and Annie. His productions have won 13 Tony Awards, 33 nominations and two regional Tony Awards for Goodspeed. Mr. Price’s theater achievements are, indeed, worth many times his weight in Tony gold.
Fiddler on the Roof runs through September 12, 2014. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). As of this writing there has been an added matinee performance on Tuesday, August 26 at 2 p.m. due to increased demand for tickets.
The box office number is 860.873.8668, open seven days a week, or on-line at www.goodspeed.org . For show highlights, special events, directions, free parking areas and more visit online, Facebook, Twitter @goodspeedmusicl and YouTube.
The Goodspeed Opera House, home of Goodspeed Musicals is at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, Connecticut.
By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle