Theatre review: Fiddler on the Roof – classic musical never hits its potential

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Another touring company hawking its Broadway wares rolled into town last night, this time with a production of classic musical Fiddler on the Roof.  But like the gadget salesmen of the PNE show-mart, the promise doesn’t always live up to the reality.

Fiddler on the Roof, which began life on stage in 1964 was not only the first musical in Broadway history to surpass the 3,000 performance mark and held the longest-running musical spot for almost ten years, it was also extraordinarily popular and critically acclaimed.  It even spawned a hugely successful movie adaptation in 1971 starring Topol, who even to this day is synonymous with the role of Tevye.  And while its initial popularity and acclaim may have been partly due to cast, which included the likes of Zero Mostel, it really is the story and memorable songs that makes it so enduring.

Set in 1905 Russia, Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of Teyve (John Preece) and his attempt at maintaining his family and his traditional Jewish traditions during Tsarist Russia.  Already headstrong, his eldest daughter Tzeitel (Lauren Nedelman) starts a chain reaction as she defies her family by rejecting the marriage arranged for her by Yente, The Matchmaker (Birdie Newman Katz) and convinces her father to break with tradition to allow her to marry her childhood sweetheart.

As the star of the show Preece has, according to the show’s program, the distinction of having played the role of Tevye more than 1,500 times in over 3,100 appearances in the show (they didn’t say what role he might have played previously).  His familiarity with the role is definitely felt as there is a comfortableness that surrounds his portrayal of the family patriarch.  He has all the necessary double-takes, asides and just the right amount of humour to compliment his strong singing voice.  Fortunately with so much hanging on the character, even after more than 1,500 performances we never get the impression he is calling in his performance from Sibera.

The cast of Fiddler on the Roof
A scene from touring company production of Fiddler on the Roof at The Centre through May 1, 2011.

Not so successful are some of the women surrounding him.  Nancy Evans’ Golde not only had an accent that never ringed true, her voice sounded tired and at times screechy; the usually beautfiul “Sunrise, Sunset” towards the end of act one was made one of the worst numbers in the show by Evans’ pitch problems.  Another disappointment was Katz’ Yente who never quite landed with what usually makes this role so much fun.

On the plus side for the women though were the three daughters which included Nedelman’s Tzeitel, Julianne Katz as Hodel and Chelsey LeBel as Chava.  Each not only have nice voices but brought a unique quality to each of their characters.  LeBel was particularly strong and managed her tear-inducing scene at the end with aplomb.

On the men’s side there really were no stand-outs beyond Preece.  I never once bought Perchik’s wide-eyed idealism; Bob Pritchard’s Constable was excruciatingly wooden.  Andrew Boza came close with his Motel but even he couldn’t generate enough sparks to get us through the show.

A relatively large cast, they seemed crowded on The Centre’s stage amongst the village and forest on wheels.  While I realize lighting can be a problem on tour, I have never seen such a reliance on follow spots to the point that when more than two main characters appeared on stage at the same time, the third or fourth ended up in darkness.

Even when it is not at its best, Fiddler on the Roof never fails to have an impact thanks to the music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein but it also needs a soul to bring it out but this production never quite gets there.  While I may have once again cried at the penultimate scene as Chava and father reconcile, it was all too little, too late.

Given the ticket prices, it’s hard to recommend this one. Rent the movie instead.

2 1/2 out of 5 Stars Fiddler on the Roof

Book by Joseph Stein.  Music by Jerry Bock.  Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.  Directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes.  A Matchmaker Touring LLC production.  On stage at The Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts through Sunday, 1 May 2011.  Tickets are available online.

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