Chicago Theater Review: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (Light Opera Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 10, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


“To Life” indeed. There’s a ton of it, not to mention heartbreak and wisdom, in Rudy Hogenmiller’s warmly wise revival, Light Opera Works’ second coming in 11 years. The universality of this nearly flawless, 50-year-old musical comes from its spontaneous specifics, the story of a scripture-citing, God-fearless milkman who’s rich in daughters and poor in everything else. Isolated it may be, but this Jewish hamlet is still on the edge of history (it takes place in 1905, when the first major rebellion will be launched against the latest pogrom-crazed Romanov).

Alex Honzen (Tevye) and cast in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

Seen so completely from the inside out that we ache for every loss, the tiny town of Antaveka becomes one collective character, its eccentricities no greater than the contradictions within a single soul.

Alex Honzen (Tevye) and Ryan Naimy (Fiddler) in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

Over a mere year, this shtetl of well-chosen folks faces more choices—and has a fatal lack thereof—than any community should confront. A microcosm of Anatevka, the family of the dairyman Tevye—his five daughters and his tough-loving wife, Golde—contend with marriage proposals made with and without the father’s permission or blessing, plus a final one that may force the family outside the faith. A pogrom and final expulsion cap challenges that test not just the means but the end of survival. It gets the right playful, storybook setting from Adam Veness’s Chagall-like village and instantly-defining costumes by Jesus Perez and Jane DeBondt.

Meredith Kochan (Chava), Yael Wartens (Tzeitel) and Katelin Spencer (Hodel) in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

As this tenacious Jewish Sancho Panza watches his beloved burg cope with change and alter “Tradition,” Tevye (no need for a last name) takes on an epic survivor’s stature: With his considerable presence and superb diction, Alex Honzen gives him an operatic sweep without sacrificing the peasant humor.

The ensemble in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

It’s no surprise: The 1964 Stein/Harnick/Bock triumph keeps surprising you with your own humanity. What stands out in this faithfully orchestrated and totally trusted musical isn’t just the wry folk wisdom of Tevye. It’s not even his comic confrontations with what threatens to become constant change. It’s also the way the dances mark every important turning in the tale.

Yael Wartens (Tzeitel) and Neil Stratman (Motel)in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

Whether it’s the carefree improvising that goes into Tevye’s covetous shenanigans in “If I Were a Rich Man,” the briefly hopeful fusion of Hora and Cossack dance in “To Life,” the taboo-smashing couples who tentatively polka in “The Wedding Dance,” or the doleful processional that empties Anatevka forever, Jerome Robbins’ inspirational choreography charts a disappearing world in its seemingly eternal circles. The rites of passage are thrilling to watch—contagiously communal dances that chronicle a village-wide Seder with its Sabbath prayers, betrothal, nightmare, wedding, and finally the settlement’s inevitable expulsion. It’s frustrating how this generous godsend can only be savored once.

Alex Honzen (Tevye), Tim Rebers (Perchik) and Katelin Spencer (Hodel) in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

Charmingly conducted by Roger L. Bingaman, the songs define the characters as indelibly as Shalom Aleichem did at the beginning (his Tevye the Dairyman is the source material). “Do You Love Me?” finally softens Golde’s gruff, practical soul, charmingly conjured by Jenny Lamb’s flinty indomitability. The waltz “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” sung by three sisters (Meredith Kochan, Chava; Yael Wartens, Tzeitel; Katelin Spencer, Hodel) not unlike Chekhov’s trio, posits what might have been against what may be. As Hodel’s proto-communist agitator, Tim Rebers’ Perchik rejoices in the lovely duet “Now I Have Everything.” Likewise Neil Stratman’s Motel, a nebbishy tailor who craves some long-delayed happiness, suddenly springs into joy with “Miracle of Miracles.”

Alex Honzen (Tevye) and Katelin Spencer (Hodel) in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

Particularly potent is “Far From the Home I Love,” a haunting ballad that, perhaps because of its sheer sadness, never achieved the popularity of “Sunrise, Sunset.” Spencer’s tender Hodel gives every note a story. Equally devastating is Tevye’s anguished “Little Chavala,” a memory-rich lament for the daughter who falls in love outside of her faith.

Alex Honzen (Tevye) and Jenny Lamb (Golde) in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

But, powerful as Honzen proves from song to joke to sorrow, Fiddler on the Roof is very much a nearly lost family album, seminal snapshots that stand for so many more perished memories. Happily, Hogenmiller surrounds our earth-father Honzen with a cast too good to close in less than two weeks.

The ensemble in Light Opera Works’ FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

photos by Mona Luan

Fiddler on the Roof
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium
600 Emerson Street in Evanston
ends on August 24, 2014
for tickets, call 847.920.5360 or visit Light Opera Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment }

Debbie Douglas August 13, 2014 at 10:05 am

I cannot wait to see Light Opera Works’ Fiddler on the Roof. It sounds fantastic.

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