Los Angeles Theater Review: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (Norris Center in Rolling Hills Estates)

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by Tony Frankel on April 25, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

FINDING THE HEARTBEAT OF FIDDLER

“To Life” indeed. There’s a ton of it, not to mention heartbreak and wisdom, in the 1964 Stein/Harnick/Bock musical triumph, Fiddler on the Roof, now receiving a worthy production at the Norris. For all the shenanigans that can come with professional community theater (a little mugging, a few line flubs, some weak vocals, and a white chin strap showing on a fake beard), this production is more than balanced by terrific performances and a lot of love, ensuring that the universality of this nearly flawless, 52-year-old musical comes shining through. I dare you to leave this heartfelt production dry-eyed.

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And even as some of the Yiddish timing is off, Randy Brenner’s engaging staging makes sure the emotion is the most important thing in the story of a scripture-citing, God-fearless milkman who’s rich in daughters and poor in everything else. 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. Isolated as it is, this Jewish hamlet is on the edge of history: It takes place in 1905, when the first major rebellion will be launched against the latest pogrom-crazed Romanov.

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Over a mere year, this shtetl of well-chosen folks faces more choices 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 Candlelight Pavilion’s Chagall-like village and instantly defining costumes by The Theatre Company.

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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, John Massey gives him an operatic sweep without sacrificing the peasant humor.

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No matter how many times I’ve seen it (including the horrid rendition with Harvey Fierstein as Tevye – what were they thinking?), Fiddler 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 or his comic confrontations with constant change, it’s also the way that dances mark every important turning in the tale. 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 the Hora and a Cossack dance in “To Life,” the swirling specter in Tevye’s hilarious dream (inventively lit by Christina Munich), the taboo-smashing couples who tentatively polka in “The Wedding Dance,” or the doleful processional that empties Anatevka forever, Jerome Robbins’s inspirational choreography (recreated by Roger Castellano) charts a disappearing world in its seemingly eternal circles.

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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 (surprisingly conjured by Barbara Niles’ flinty indomitability), and the waltz “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” sung by three sisters not unlike Chekhov’s trio, posits what might have been against what may be (great turns by Kanani Rose, Chava; Rachel Hirshee, Tzeitel; Carlin Castellano, Hodel).

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As Hodel’s proto-communist agitator, Luke Monday’s Perchik rejoices in the lovely duet “Now I Have Everything.” Likewise Jonathan Brett’s Motel, a nebbishy tailor who craves some long-delayed happiness, suddenly springs into joy with “Miracle of Miracles”; even with somewhat weak vocals, Brett is one of the most endearing performances of the production. Just as engaging but without his own song is Josh Wise as Fyedka, the Russian soldier with eyes for Chava.

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Particularly potent is “Far From the Home I Love,” a haunting ballad that, perhaps because of its sheer sadness, never achieved the popularity of the hypnotic “Sunrise, Sunset.” Castellano’s tender Hodel gives every note a story. Equally devastating is Tevye’s anguished “Little Chavala” (“Chava Ballet Sequence”), a memory-rich lament for the daughter who falls in love outside of her faith, played with striking sensibility and heartache by Massey.

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But, powerful as Massey 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. Many of us have known the fragmentation of family or the pain of displacement (look at the current Syrian diaspora), but to experience the poignancy with humor, dance, and music is what makes Fiddler on the Roof such a miracle of miracles.

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photos by Ed Krieger

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2016FiddlerontheRoof3Fiddler on the Roof
Palos Verdes Performing Arts
Norris Theatre
27570 Norris Center Dr, Rolling Hills Estates
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2;
Sat at 2 on Apr. 30 and May 7
ends on May 8, 2016
for tickets, call (310) 544-0403
or visit Norris

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