Friday, September 13, 2013

“Fiddler On The Roof”

On our third day at The Stratford Festival, we attended an evening performance of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein musical, “Fiddler On The Roof”.

I had not anticipated being captivated by such over-familiar material, but the Stratford “Fiddler On The Roof” proved to be the finest—by far—of the eight Stratford productions we caught. I never expect to see a finer presentation of “Fiddler On The Roof”.

The production was exceedingly well-cast and meticulously rehearsed, and the cast members gave fresh, vital, committed performances. The energy onstage was infectious, yet there was no playing to the crowd.

The Tevye was Scott Wentworth, who had played Shylock that same afternoon on the very same stage. Wentworth’s Tevye was admirable, serious and controlled, full of gravitas, underplaying the comedy. His Tevye was tough as nails, yet also poetic—and it was easy to accept that he was a commanding, even overwhelming, figure in his family and community. Had it been necessary, Wentworth might have held the show together all by himself (which is what he had been required to do in “The Merchant Of Venice”). Wentworth is an exceptional actor—and this season’s Stratford Festival has turned him into a star in Canada.

The rest of the cast acquitted itself with honor—even the smallest parts came alive—although the Golde might have been stronger (we had seen the actress playing Golde in two roles at last year’s Shaw Festival, and she had been distinctly unimpressive at Niagara-On-The-Lake, too).

The production was a conservative, traditional one, probably much like the original Broadway production (the Stratford design team had even taken its cues from Chagall). There was no attempt to do anything new or unusual with the material. The director must have decided that the show virtually plays itself if staged in a clear, straightforward manner.

Strictures exist when staging “Fiddler On The Roof”. The Jerome Robbins choreography must be recreated, without excisions and without emendations. (I assume licensing requirements for the choreography are somewhat relaxed for high school and amateur performance.) Very little leeway is granted in terms of performing the musical numbers or the book. The setting of the show may not be altered, and the stage design and costume design must remain within specified parameters.

Licensing demands did not hamper the Stratford production. There was no want of imagination, no evidence that “originality” was the missing ingredient. Every scene worked to perfection, every musical number came off, which says much about the skill of the creators of the show.

The audience was enthralled for three hours. I cannot recall the last time I experienced an audience so attentive and so responsive to what was happening onstage.

In many ways, it is ironic that a company that bills itself as “North America’s finest classical repertory theater” was at its best in an American musical. The Schiller/Shakespeare productions we attended were nowhere near as fine—or as confident—as the “Fiddler On The Roof”. Somehow I doubt this is what Tyrone Guthrie had in mind when he founded The Stratford Festival (of course, Guthrie’s other child, The Guthrie Theater, has also lost its way over time).

Nonetheless, it was the Stratford “Fiddler On The Roof” that most of all made our trip to Canada worthwhile. The production remains in my memory. It was so remarkable, I don’t think I want to go near the show again for a very long time.

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