Coronado, CA—Waaaaaaaaaay back in 1985, Lamb’s Players Theatre, then located in National City, mounted the Joseph Stein, Jerry Block, and Sheldon Harnick, (book, music and lyrics) musical drama “Fiddler on the Roof” based on Sholem Aleichem’ short story “Tevye and his Daughters” or “Tevye the Milkman and Other Tales”.
Now some twenty odd years later, in new digs, and to a much greater degree of success but not without unintended missteps that can’t be remedied, (blowing out the Sabbath candles is a no, no, breaking the glass at the wedding ceremony is a must, and unnecessarily speaking with accents that don’t represent any group in particular doesn’t make sense), the company is tackling the crowd pleaser once again. This time around Lamb’s resources are more sophisticated and refined and the results are much more satisfying and pleasurable.
Artistic director Robert Smyth, who is co directing with his wife Deborah Gilmour Smyth, introduces a Klezmer band and sound with band leader Mark Danisovszky at the keyboards and accordion and six talented musicians. It definitely adds a new dimension not seen in other productions of ‘Fiddler”. Patrick Duffy designed the sound.
The band sits on stage throughout and even participates in several of the numbers including the wedding scene. Diana Elledge’s cello haunts as she plays “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset”. Stefanie Schmitz and her fiery clarinet give the klezmer sound another dimension. Fiddler, Ernest Saucedo dances his way into the hearts of the audience as his excellent performance never ceases to amaze. First he can be seen on the rooftop, then next to the band, then following Tevye; always where he should be but we never see him getting there.
A strong Chagall influence of brightly colored costumes for the women is fashioned by Jeanne Barnes Reith that brighten the overall look. The only look the men bring with them is that their heads are covered in one way or another and the showing of the knotted fringes on the four corners of the garments worn under their outside clothing is evident. It would have served better had their outfits/trousers reflected the same originality and period look as those of the women.
Beyond the background swirls of clouds on a blue sky and dangling rooftops in pyramid like clusters and similar swirls on the floor, al la Chagall, sits an intricate compact, complex and somewhat stark set created by set designer Mike Buckley lit properly by Nathan Pierson. Property designer Michael McKeon manages cleverly to stack enough memorabilia resembling the innards of a house of worship (all off to the side) to imagine that a synagogue must be hiding there somewhere.
The set is solid with all moveable parts that are tucked away visibly under the musician’s platform or in little cubbies. This allows more playing and dancing space but changes the paradigm from a conventional place in time to a nondescript, absent of any sense of time in place, which doesn’t always do justice to the overall flow of the production.
That aside, when the company comes on stage full force and begins its traditional opening musical number “TRADITION”, I must admit it was, the night I was there, a celebration of major proportions. The entire cast was engaged and yours truly settled in for another amazing evening in Anatevka.
It is here, during this number, that Tevye (Sam Zeller) lays the groundwork for the coming events. He explains that tradition is the glue that keeps his religion alive and once that begins to crumble, values (and these are not his words) go to hell. Because there is tradition, everybody knows what to do and what God expects him to do. (These are his words)
And as he continues his narrative in the opening scenes, he reminds us that Jews eke out a living wherever they happen to be. They are always at the mercy of any and all government’s problem and they always ready to move at a moments notice, therefore keeping their head covered/hats on, practice their religion faithfully and even going so far (Tevye that is) as quoting lines from ‘The Good Book’. Finally, he confesses that without tradition life would be as shaky as a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.
What more can be said of this most beloved and time-tested musical that has at its center a heart and soul in the form the milkman Tevye than has already been said? Tevye would like nothing more than to “sit in the Synagogue and pray” (“If I were a Rich Man”), make sure he picks out suitable husbands for his three eldest daughters, (he can worry about the other two later on) preferably above the station of being daughters of a poor milkman, (“Matchmaker, Matchmaker”) fix his lame horse and allow his wife of twenty-five years, Golde played strikingly by Deborah Gilmour Smyth to stop nagging him. (“Do You Love Me?”) But there is more.
One mustn’t underestimate this philosopher, this man of the world who has never left his little town of Anatevka, but knows more about life than most. His inner strength and fatherly love combined with his compassion and love for his family shows up in his every move. His sense of ironic humor and an unyielding commitment to his faith is so ingrained that when his youngest daughter Chava, (Megan Carmitchel) wants to marry out of the faith to the Russian student Fyedka (Anton Fero), he considers it another intrusion into the world so unfamiliar to him that he fears he will break if he allows it.
In the end he shuns her, declares her dead and once more the musical creators have given us one of the most heartbreaking and poignant numbers of all, “Chavala” and the “Chava Dance Sequence”. With Saucedo’s violin sounds leading the dance, it’s another a tearjerker for me.
On the other hand, when his oldest daughter Tzeitel stands under the traditional canopy with Motel The Tailor, Cam Ziol (Brandon Joel Maier) in celebration of their wedding it rings with excitement as Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Sam Zeller sing so very touchingly, the other hauntingly emotional expression about loss in what has to be one of the most recognizable numbers of all time, “Sunrise/Sunset”. It is a thrilling-chill center moment.
On the other hand, he’s not too thrilled to allow his second eldest daughter Hodel (Caitie Grady) to marry the know it all Bolshevik leaning student Perchik (Charles Evans). He is eventually sent to Siberia for causing riots in the streets of Moscow and she follows promising her father to marry under a canopy. (“Far From The Home I Love”). All three young women are perfectly suitable in their respective roles.
The original Broadway production of ‘Fiddler’ opened in 1964 and had over 3000 performances holding the longest running Broadway production for almost ten years until Grease knocked it out of the running. It was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won nine including Best Musical, score, book, direction and choreography.
In his review of ‘Fiddler’ Norman Nadel of World Telegram & Sun said, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Tevye. Some of the dance numbers-especially “To Life, to Life, L’chiam” –make it almost impossible to keep from dancing in the isles”. I had that feeling in Lamb’s production.
Colleen Kollar Smith’s choreography is lively, spunky and oh, so much fun to watch especially in the “To Life” number when the Russian boys poke a hand out to Tevye (a robust and convincing Sam Zeller) and Lazar Wolf, the butcher (a slimmed down and amiable John Rosen), and want to engage in a dance with them.
This comes after Tevye and Lazar seal the deal that gives Lazar permission to marry Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitle (spirited Charlene Koepf). Needless both men are filled to the brim with Vodka and are a bit overwhelmed by all the hoopla. I love it!
Other standout numbers that will make you smile include “Tevye’s Dream” and “Miracle Of Miracles” both performed to perfection; the first includes most of the cast as well with Sandy Campbell as Fruma Sarah (Lazar Wolf’s late wife) who warns Golda and Tevye not to allow Lazar to marry Tzeitel. She competes with grandma Tzeitle (Jessica Couto) who mistakenly thinks Tzeitle is marrying Motel anyway, the second involves Tzeitel and Motel dancing for joy as Tevye gives them permission to marry even though they did not go through the Matchmaker (a mismatched Kerry Meads). This all done, and very well in dream like sequences.
Others in the town needing recognition include the Rabbi, (Danny Campbell is classic in his portrayal of the old wise man) and on the other side of the spectrum Jason Heil plays the Russian Constable who warns Tevye about the planned pogroms in the town. He’s not the audience or the town’s favorite, but he does it well.
On opening night, the production showed a lot of heart, but it lacked some cohesiveness that I’m sure will gather momentum throughout the run. With a cast of nearly twenty-five, an eight-piece Klezmer Band (on stage) Lamb’s Players deserves credit for this huge undertaking. There’s something special about being in Anatevka.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through July 14th /check with box office)
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: 1142 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA 92118
Ticket Prices: $26.00-$68.00