Play: Fiddler on the Roof
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne University Black Box Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
Dates: November 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 314-719-8060 or www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Story: Life in the village of Anatevka, Russia is harsh in 1905 for people such as Tevye the dairyman and his family and friends. While Jewish citizens such as Tevye are subject to forced confinement to pogroms or, at the least, random acts of violence by the Cossack army of the ruling czar, they nonetheless endure through their devout faith and loyalty to family and traditions. The times are changing, however, even in distant outposts such as Anatevka, where the three oldest of Tevye and wife Golde’s five daughters are falling in love with young suitors in untraditional ways. How will the “Good Book” of biblical teachings help Tevye deal with radical ideas?
Highlights: Based on the Yiddish tales written by Sholom Aleichem and published in 1894, Fiddler on the Roof has been filling theaters for 45 years since its record-breaking run on Broadway debuted in 1964. Winner of nine Tony Awards, it features engaging music by Jerry Bock, intelligent lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a solid book by Joseph Stein. Traditionally, Fiddler is a large, robust show, capable of filling spacious stages with an assortment of supporting characters who flesh out major moments of choreography that interpret many of the show’s numbers.
Mustard Seed Theatre, however, has taken a decidedly different approach. Director Deanna Jent has encapsulated the enduring crowd-pleaser by focusing on its core of 11 characters, including Tevye, Golde, their older daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, suitors Motel the tailor, Perchik the revolutionary teacher and Fyedka the Gentile soldier, Lazar Wolf the butcher, Yente the matchmaker and the town’s rabbi. Musical director Joe Dreyer relies upon his own substantial skills as a pianist and the delightful accompaniment of violinist Laura Sexauer to interpret the show’s myriad memorable tunes, including Tradition, If I Were a Rich Man, Sunrise, Sunset, To Life! and many others.
Other Info: For the most part, Jent’s approach works soundly, even if it is disconcerting not to see the ‘big’ elements that make the usual approach so enjoyable. Jent’s pacing is solid, and she judiciously employs all dozen players (including Dreyer for a few select scenes) to fill the stage when necessary, such as the wedding reception of Tzeitel and Motel and the opening number, Tradition.
Dunsi Dai’s set is a simple but effective bracketing of the performance area by modest depictions of the village on one side and the musicians’ playing space on the other, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting maintains the miniature effect. Jane Sullivan’s costumes nicely reference the time and place.
Key to the success of this unusual interpretation is the performance of the players, and it is here where Jent achieves her most notable success. Jerry Russo anchors the proceedings with an eminently appealing portrayal of Tevye. He captures the dairyman’s charm, humor and impish interplay with other characters, while also conveying the spiritual wrestling matches Tevye undergoes as his daughters each challenge his cherished beliefs in surprising ways. While he rushes his lines on occasion and thus mars their impact, nonetheless it’s a warm and carefully crafted rendition that provides the underpinnings to the entire production.
Lavonne Byers and Eleanor Mullin are terrific as Golde and Yente, respectively. Byers is equally adept at drama and comedy, and here evinces laughs as much with a reprimanding glance at Tevye as with the simple gestures that evoke the period, while Mullin’s expressions and deadpan delivery humorously convey the gossipy nature of the matchmaker.
There is charming work by Laura Sexauer, Julie Venegoni and Natasha Toro as the three smitten daughters. Sexauer is sweet and convincing as the eldest daughter willing to risk everything to avoid her parents’ arranged marriage for her to the widowed butcher for a shot instead at happiness with her young tailor. Venegoni, who doubles as the show’s choreographer (a daunting task on such a tiny stage that she handles satisfactorily), is splendid as the direct and forceful Hodel, who finds her equal in the cocky but compassionate Perchik. And Natasha Toro offers a nice blend of shyness and ardent love as Chava, who returns the friendship and affection of the Russian soldier and ushers in heartbreak as a result.
Paul Pagano does a fine job as the fiery Perchik, challenging customs throughout, while Dylan Duke has a nice turn as Fyedka and also demonstrates a notable knack for Russian dances and some limber work with a bottle on his head in a nifty bit with Pagano and Ryan Cooper. The latter has some humorous moments as Motel, but could improve his performance by ratcheting down his schtick just a bit. Michael Brigthman is fine as Lazar Wolf, although he doesn’t really look the part more traditionally associated with burlier, gruffer sorts, and Richard Lewis does solid work as the confused rabbi and the town’s stern constable.
While this production obviously lacks the bravado of the usual ‘big’ numbers, it succeeds by maintaining its focus on the musical’s strong characters, challenging tradition as much as Tevye’s daughters, and staying ‘in tune’ most of the time.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.