Fiddler on the Roof
Peoria Players Theatre
May 3-5 & 8-12
By Marty Lynch
Fiddler on the Roof is the show that breaks rules better than any other classic. One would think that the story of a shtetl in Anatevka would scream niche audience, and each act ends softly. The plot is hardly more than a fable Aesop could have told. Why then, should such a show be a classic? How could Fiddler be the closest thing any theatre can count on as a sure thing? The answer is simple: Tevye.
Peoria Players has assembled another strong showing with Laura Garfinkel’s direction. The show starts with the eponymous fiddler, playing the cold opening overture and symbolizing the entire play’s message. There to explain it, introduce us, and masterfully guide us through is Lee Wenger’s Tevye.
Contrary to what you might think, Tevye is actually a milkman in the Russian town of Anatevka. He is a respected man in a shtetl set a century in the past. He is a man of faith, filled with love and life and a deeply rooted traditional value system. He is also the father of five headstrong lovely women.
Folks in Anatevka have found a precarious live and let live arrangement, but the zeitgeist is overwhelming this insular community and anti-Semitism is beginning to rear its ugly head. While the outside world threatens the shtetl, Tevye’s daughters, at least in his eyes, are taking his world apart from within. Clearly this is a set-up for a character driven musical, and Mr. Wenger thrives in his role.
For those of us who remember the Bob Newhart Show, you’ll recognize that the secret of Mr. Wenger’s performance is the same as Newhart’s ability to act in a scene with only a phone. Mr. Wenger doesn’t even get a phone, yet he is able to command the room and make it look so natural that it may appear easy. In fact, it is the cornerstone performance, and you’ll see why nobody was sitting when he took his bow. But he is not alone. Tevye’s wife and daughters drive much of the action. Carolyn Briggs-Gaul plays his wife, Golde, and share some of the sweetest moments of the show with him. Tevye’s daughters are played by five wonderful actresses, highlighted by Rebekah Dentino, Chloe Van Slyke, and especially Emily Hardesty, whom I haven’t seen since the Wedding Singer, coming into her own as a performer right before our eyes.
Larry Betzelberger as Lazar Wolf spearheads a small cadre of characters that provide some of the show’s lightest moments. Also fun to watch are Jim Willard as the Rabbi, Stacey Brewer as the Fiddler, and the show’s famous bottle dancers, Kayvon Emtiaz, Natalie McMillion, and Amber Baer.
One of the curious letdowns of this show is the sheer size of the cast. There are times when the stage is packed with the intent of creating a lively, bustling community, but it comes off as crowded instead. This is particularly odd when it’s clear that choreographer Lise Higgins knows exactly what she’s doing as she creates such strong images throughout the show. The dancing is wonderful and essential to a show that is as much celebration as it is storyline. The show seems strongest when there are under three or over thirty people on stage. Large panels reconfigure the stage for a fluid series of set changes, moments, and a delightful dream sequence. Or is it a nightmare sequence?
Fiddler is a show that I personally enjoyed before I had children; my wife and I were curious how it would change for us now that we are parents. This is certainly a show that grows with you. Characters don’t change over time, but we do and our view of characters can grow and mature with the advantage of age. What I’m saying is that Fiddler is better now than it was before for me, and it likely will be for you as well. If you’re thinking of introducing your kids to Fiddler, make sure they can handle a three hour show, or you too may be driven out of Anatevka.
• Nicki Haschke and Vicki Rocke are, as ever, wonderful hosts.
• The auditorium is being remodeled and is looking better each time I see a show.
• How talented are the local high school kids? The bios tell me half the cast can’t even vote yet.
• Look through your program. There are some nifty coupons in there.
• N University and W Lake are covered in construction barrels. Stay safe.
Fiddler on the Roof continues it's run Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm with a Sunday matinee at 2 pm on Sunday. Tickets are $18 for adults and $12 for ages 18 and under and $12 for all ages for the Wednesday, May 8 performance and are available at the Peoria Players Box Office, by calling 309-688-4473 or online at www.PeoriaPlayers.org
Posted May 6, 2013