Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Indeed not. Ten Thousand Things Theatre's luminescent production maintains all of the virtues that make Fiddler one of the all-time great musicals: Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's beautiful, tuneful score; Joseph Stein's exquisite book, laden with abundant humor and drama that tugs at the heartstrings; and a context for that human drama within sea changes that befall a community from forces within and without. In Ten Thousand Things' trademark style, director Michelle Hensley has scaled Fiddler down to its most basic elements of characters and a plot told through both dialogue and music, to take a show identified with the experience of Eastern-European Jews a century ago and make it apply to any community faced with rapid cultural change, including those very much present here and now.
While the theme of community is at the core of Fiddler on the Roof, the show takes us far below the surface meaning of that word, conveying both the joy and the struggle to maintain community. The glue that holds community together, it tells us in the iconic opening song and throughout the show, is "Tradition." Traditions guide each member of a family as to his or her role, define individual's roles within their community, and provide the means to celebrate their joys and mourn their losses.
In 1905 those traditions form the foundation of life in the Jewish shtetl of Anatevka, in Tsarist Russia. Tevye is a poor Jewish milkman with five daughter. His life is a struggle, but the traditions of his village and his people enable him to endure with dignity and humor. We hear the beauty of tradition in the family's "Sabbath Prayer" and its rigidity in the rules for matchmaking. As, one by one, his three oldest daughters challenge the traditions, Tevye is torn. Does he follow the centuries-old ways of his people? Or does he act on behalf of his daughters' happiness, and accept change? As Tevye thinks aloud, "Love. It's a new style. On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren't they?"
Tzeitel, the oldest daughter, pleads to bypass the matchmaker's plan for her to wed a wealthy but much older widowed butcher, and to marry the poor tailor she has loved since childhood. Hodel, the second daughter, falls in love with a revolutionary teacher who will take her far from home and face great risks to fight against injustice. Third daughter Chava falls in love with a Russian boy who shares her interest in books and her gentle naturebut is not Jewish. How far can Tevye bend his traditions, his beliefs, and his faith? In the end, after an ill-timed "small" pogrom has upset the community, the Jews are evicted in masse from Anatevka. Their home is no more, and their community scatterssome to Poland, to New York, to Chicago ... wherever they can find safe harbor, with the hope of building community anew. And for that, one thing must accompany them on their journeytradition.
In its customary manner, Ten Thousand Things Theatre's Fiddler has a very small cast of nine actors, most of whom play multiple roles, without regard to race or gender. This small crew raise their voices in powerful song and celebrate with festive dance. There is only a modicum of scenery, but it is utilized with great wit. The house lights stay on, so the story is not told by blocking the outside world from view, but embraces the outside world as the context for their work.
The performances of Tevye, his wife Golde, Yenta the matchmaker, Lazar Woolf the butcher, the Rabbi, and other adults feel somewhat broad in gesture and voice, as if characters from a folktale. The daughters and their suitors, on the other hand, feel more natural. As a result, the members of the older generation come across as living in the age of long ago, while the youthful characters are living more in the present. The subtle distinction reinforces the theme of old-world traditions giving way to the present. It should also be noted that there is no effort made for the characters to all speak with Jewish immigrant accents. Quite the opposite, the actors give their characters a range of accents, underlining the notion that this is not merely a Jewish story.
The actors are phenomenal. Steve Epps holds the show together as Tevye, and he brings a great range of emotion, plays the comedy well, and is particularly moving in the periodic scenes in which he talks with his friend, Godusually in the form of complaints or requests for special favors. This includes the wonderful "If I Were a Rich Man" which Epps performs beautifully. Thomasina Petrus plays his wife Golde. She projects the right amount of sass and impatience with her somewhat dreamy husband, making clear that she has held the family together these 25 years. She and Epps are heartwarming as they wonder if their matchmaker-brokered marriage has yet turned into love, in the sweetly comical "Do You Love Me?" Petrus also plays Lazar Wolf, giving him the air of an Appalachian Mountain man, bold and hearty. Dennis Spears plays three quite different roles: Yenta the matchmaker, who speaks with a polished drawl of a dignified southern lady, and easily throws her importance around; the Rabbi, whose pronouncements are more a reflection of common sense than Talmudic study; and the Russian Constable, who means to be a friend to Tevye by warning him of the coming trouble, but who makes no effort to disguise his disdain for the Jews.
Elise Langer as Tzeitel, Sheena Janson as Hodel, and Joy Dolo as Chava perform the spritely but cautionary song "Matchmaker" with great charm, and each acts well in scenes with their suitors and with their father. Janson has the opportunity to shine singing the heart-clenching "Far From the Home I Love." As the suitors, Eric Sharp as Motel the tailor perfectly conveys a shy, stumbling nature that he must overcome to win Tevye's approval. Kory LaQuess Pullman, as Perchik, lacks some of the fire that might be expected of one sworn to fight for justice, but plays very well in the scenes where he and Janson inch their way toward love. Tyson Forbes as the Russian boy Fyedka is persuasively gentle and sincere in his stance against oppression of the Jews. With simple costume changes, each of these actors plays other, smaller roles, more fully populating Anatevka.
The costumes, cleverly designed by Trevor Bowen, combine contemporary work clothes with folkloric accessories. An especially striking costume transforms tall, lanky Tyson Forbes into the ghost of Fruma-Sarah, Lazar Wolf's deceased wife. In line with their modest scale, the two youngest of Tevye's daughters are rag-doll puppets, and Tyson Forbes provides their voices. Typically, Ten Thousand Things' shows have one musician, their gifted music director Peter Vitale, who here provides sound effects as well as keyboard, percussion and clarinet. This time out, he is joined at times by the Fiddler himself, played by Tyson Forbes (a busy fellow, Tyson), and the two beautifully deliver the Jewish-tinted music so important to the show.
Ten Thousand Things Theater Company brings their work to audiences that ordinarily would not see live theater. This includes homeless shelters, community centers, adult education programs and prisons. Their stripped-down physical production and pared down scripts allow for accessibility to the space and time these sites can afford. The diverse, color-blind casting puts actors on stage who look like the audience, and their swift storytelling style holds the audience's interest. Fiddler on the Roof is a great choice for that mission. The story of a community's traditions slipping away, youth no longer honoring the ways of their parents, and villagers being forced to flee because of their religion, or skin tone, or language, or any other arbitrary division among people, mirror the world of many members of those audiences.
There is absolutely a place for traditional productions that keep the Jewishness of the work front and center. That is the Fiddler I grew up loving. But this different take on the work brings the spirit of Fiddler to diverse communities who may recognize themselves in its characters and conflicts, and thereby find understanding, comfort and hope. Let us welcome this old friend anew.
Public performances of Fiddler on the Roof run through March 5, 2017, then March 16 - March 19, 2017, at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis. Also, March 9 - 12, 2017, at the Minnesota Opera Center. Tickets: $30.00. Pay what you can, $10.00 or up, for those under 30. Free advance tickets may be available for Community Performances. Call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Book: Joseph Stein, based on stories by Shalom Aleichem; Music: Jerry Bock; Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick; Director: Michelle Hensley; Music Director: Peter Vitale; Costumes: Trevor Bowen; Sets: Stephen Mohring; Puppets: Aeysha Kinnunen; Jewish Cultural Consultant: Bonnie Gruen; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director: Isabel Nelson; Production Intern: Mikaela Vogland.
Cast: Joy Dolo (Chava/Mordcha the innkeeper), Steve Epp (Tevye), Tyson Forbes (The Fiddler / Shprintze & Bielke puppeteer/Fyedka/ghost of Fruma-Sarah), Sheena Janson (Hodel/Avram), Elise Langer (Tzeitel/Mendel, the rabbi's son), Thomasina Petrus (Golde/Lazar Wolf), Kory LaQuess Pullman (Perchik/Shaindel, Motel's mother/ Yussel the hat maker), Eric Sharp (Motel/Rivka the fish seller), Dennis Spears (Yenta the matchmaker/The Rabbi/Russian constable).