FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 9th June, 2015
The last time I saw this show it had Paul Michael Glaser in it and the cast played musical instruments on stage. BMOS gives us a more straightforward production, relying on the strength of the material and a traditional approach.
Being opening night, there are inevitably a few technical hitches, with a few missed microphone cues and some dry ice coming on a scene early. Scene transitions can take a bit too long, forcing musical director Daivd Easto to have the band repeat the same note over and over like a stuck record. All of this, I expect, will be ironed out as the run progresses.
Those niggles aside, this is an enjoyable evening, recounting the not-quite heart-warming story of a community destroyed by ethnic cleansing. John Spencer’s Tevye is the beating heart of the village and the show itself. Spencer delivers the milkman’s warmth and humour by the cartload in a performance that dominates but never overshadows, as Tevye learns that the traditions that once were the glue that held his life together are now wedges that drive his family apart. Sally Jolliffe makes a formidable Golde, the milkman’s wife. There is some lovely character work from Jennifer Eglinton as Yente the matchmaker and old busybody, and Dave Wilkes’s Lazar the butcher comes into his own during a rousing pub song. Rob Bateman sounds authentic as the revolutionary Perchik from Kiev – and here I feel a comment about the accents coming on.
The accents are all over the shop, taking us from the Ukraine to Bangladesh via Tiger Bay, with hints of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ludwig Von Drake thrown in. My advice would be don’t bother. Focus instead on characterisation and playing the emotion of a scene, letting the cadence of the dialogue emerge for itself. Witness the star turn by Mark Walsh as timid tailor Motel. No vowel-strangling here, just an honest and convincing portrayal of a young man summoning up the confidence to win the girl he loves. His solo, Miracle of Miracles, is a definite highlight – a difficult number that Walsh pulls off via characterisation, showing Motel growing in stature as the song builds to its climax. A cut above – if I may use a tailor pun.
Tevye’s eldest daughters each have their troubles, allowing Marie Donnellan (Tzeitel), Abby Wells (Hodel) and Amy Jevons (Chava) their moments in the spotlight. Separately, they sing sweetly and emotively but together as a trio, their Matchmaker song is a delight.
There are times when the stage seems overcrowded – the chorus is in fine voice – and the action can be a little unfocussed because there’s so many of them. The wedding ceremony is a little swamped, for example, and Tevye’s dream is overpopulated (although Karen Whittington’s Fruma-Sarah is head and shoulders above everyone else!). That said, there are some stand-out moments: the men dancing at the wedding reception (Sally Jolliffe’s choreography is suitably ethnic) is superbly done – but director Stephen Duckham needs to make the disruption caused by Russian bullies more menacing.
The main symbol that gives the show its title, a fiddler on the roof, tells us that life is precarious. People in dangerous situations are just trying to scrape a living. Ethnic cleansing and hordes of refugees are still very much with us. First produced in 1964, the show was a coded reference to Nazi Germany, a look at a difficult subject through the safety of historical distance. Nowadays, the story resonates beyond the Jewish experience. One wonders whether Tevye and his family fleeing oppression today, would end up drowning in the Med.
Perhaps I’m making the show sound more heavy-going than it is. Joseph Stein’s book is warm and funny, and Jerry Bock’s score is chockfull of strong songs, with witty and poignant lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. BMOS presents a solid, more than competent production that serves the material well, entertains and satisfies, even though it could do with a little more theatrical flair.