The stage at Goodspeed Musicals has been transformed into a eastern European shtetl for a magnificent production of Fiddler on the Roof. Once again director Rob Ruggerio has shown he has the sensibility to take a large musical and by focusing on the individuals and the story make it not only work on the small Goodspeed stage but actually bring a more personal and emotional experience to the audience.
It may seem strange that Goodspeed had never produced this iconic story of Tevye, his wife, and five daughters and the people of the small village in which they life a precarious existence with always the threat of pogroms and discrimination. They are the quintessential immigrants.
The current news headlines — of debates over immigration reform, illegal immigrants and sectarian violence and prejudice seemingly all over the world — makes this production more relevant to me than it has ever been.
The mood is established from the opening moments when we see the flexible and spare set designed by Michael Schweikardt with a row of birch trees at the back. It is the perfect backdrop to remind us Russia (and Chekhov) . When Tevye, the fine Adam Heller explains about “Tradition” – we are brought into this world and soon the other cast members join him on stage. We soon learn about the three eldest daughters and their dreams of good matches which seems unlikely given their poverty and lack of social standing.
Yet Tevye reveals that he is willing to break with his tradition to allow his daughters to find happiness, with the exception of Chava who marries a hated soldier.
Not only is there not a one cast member who isn’t excellent, several bring new depth to their roles. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more nuanced Lazar Wolf than John Payonk. Wolf, you might remember, is the mature butcher who wants to marry Tzeitel. Both the Constable (Darren Matthias) and Fyedka (Timothy Hassler) who falls in love with Chava are brought to three dimension. It seemed that Hassler conveys Fyedka’s awareness of the difficulties that he and Chava’s love will cause for everyone.
But let’s not neglect Heller as Tevye nor Lori Wilner as his wife, Golde. They have imbued each character with a full range of emotions and humanity. I’m not sure I’ve felt such truthfulness in the song “Do You Love Me?” before. While Heller and Wilner get the appropriate laughs from the show, neither gives in to shtick or over-acting so that the characters seem stereotypes.
Once again, as is so often at Goodspeed, the choreography and dancing is excellent.
Parker Esse has reproduced the original Jerome Robbins choreography. The talented dancers excel throughout but most of all in the famous dance at the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel. I was assured by those in the know that the dance with the bottles is done with no gimmicks to make it easier.
Everyone will ask how Ruggiero has handled the “big” scene of the dream that Tevye concocts to convince Golde to break the marriage bargain with Lazar Wolf that will permit Tzeitel to marry her true love, Motel. While Wolf’s widow doesn’t fly down into the bedroom, she is a larger than life ghost as she delivers threats.
In addition to the set, lighting designer Jon Lassiter helps create the mood. The costumes by Alejo Vietti are appropriate but at times it seems as those these poor villagers have too many costume changes.
In the final scenes, when the villagers are ordered to leave, and pack up their belongings to go off to diverse new and strange places, it nearly brought a tear to my eye. This is a first for me with Fiddler on the Roof.
So hurrah to director Rob Ruggiero and his cast for a production that brings all the emotions to the audience without being either saccharine or over-wrought.
Fiddler on the Roof is at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam through Sept. 12. For tickets and information call 860-873-8668 or on-line