Thursday, April 21, 2016

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF - SYDNEY




Book by Joseph Stein: Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick:  Music by Jerry Bock:
Directed by: Roger Hodgman
Musical Direction by: Kellie Dickerson
Jerome Robbins original Choreography reproduced by: Dana Jolly
Set Design by: Richard Roberts
The Capitol Theatre Sydney until May 8, 2016

Performance on 13th April 2016 reviewed by Bill Stephens

Sholom Aleichem’s story of a poor milkman, Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his struggles to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions against outside influences encroaching on his family’s lives seems an unlikely premise for a musical. However, nearly 52 years after it first opened on Broadway,  “Fiddler on the Roof” still retains its relevance and emotional power, due in part to the Joseph Stein’s brilliantly concise book, Sheldon Harnick’s superb Lyrics and Jerry Bock’s glorious musical score, and of course, Jerome Robbins luminous choreography. But above all, the success of any production of “Fiddler on the Roof” rests on the shoulders of the actor who plays the central role of Tevye, one of the great Broadway music theatre roles.

For twenty years, after he first introduced Tevye to Australia in 1967, Hayes Gordon was the definitive Tevye for generations of Australian theatregoers. He performed the role in productions by both J.C.Williamsons and The Australian Opera. Interestingly, Anthony Warlow played the role of Fyedka in the 1984 Australian Opera revival production lead by Hayes Gordon.

In 1998, Topol rekindled Australia’s love affair with “Fiddler on the Roof” when he brought his acclaimed interpretation of Tevye to Australia for a  Melbourne season, returning in 2005 to tour with the show  throughout Australia and New Zealand  for the next two years.

Now, in 2016, Anthony Warlow gets his opportunity to stamp his mark on the role in a brand new production directed by Roger Hodgeman. 

Anthony Warlow as Tevye

Warlow is simply mesmerising as Tevye. Fresh from his Broadway triumphs, he draws on his considerable acting skills to create a character which holds his audience in thrall from curtain rise to final bows. They chuckle through his intimate soliloquys with God; they laugh outright at his impatient responses to the hectoring of his wife, Golde; sympathise with his graceful acquiescence to the pleas of his eldest daughter to marry the man of her choice; grieve with him as he painfully farewells his second daughter on her journey to Siberia to be with the man she loves; and share his distraught roar of despair as he realises that he can bend no further to allow his third daughter to marry outside her faith. It’s a towering, finely nuanced, bravura performance which will long be remembered by a new generation of theatre-goers lucky enough to experience it.

Sigrid Thornton (Golde) - Anthony Warlow (Tevye) 

Not so successful is the casting of Sigrid Thornton as Tevye’s wife, Golde. A curious choice for the role because although Thornton looks lovely and has a delightful stage presence and a passable singing voice, she is never able to convince that she has slaved alongside Tevye for twenty five years in primitive conditions to bring up their five daughters. Through no fault of hers she simply looks and sounds too glamorous and lightweight.

Jessica Vickers  (Chava) Teagan Wouters (Tzietel), Monica Swayne (Hodel) 

Teagan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers, as their three older daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, each delight with strong individual characterisations, especially evident  in their trio “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, with Swayne providing a memorable highlight with her touching interpretation of “Far From the Home I Love”.


The Rabbi blesses Motel's sewing machine.
Lior (seated - Motel) Jessica Vickers (Chava) Sigrid Thornton (Golde)
Teagan Wouters (Tzietel) Derek Taylor (Rabbi)

Lior is well cast as the gormless, though industrious tailor, Motel, almost exploding with happiness in “Miracle of Miracles”. Blake Bowden, as the revolutionist, Perchik brought a fine voice to his solo “Now I Have Everything”, but an unfortunate tendency to shout his dialogue, especially in his scene with Tevye, lessoned the effectiveness of his characterisation. Fyedka was winningly portrayed by Jensen Overend, but the curious mis-match in height between he and Jessica Vickers, as Chava, made their scenes together appear somewhat awkward.

That Joseph Stein’s book for “Fiddler on the Roof” contains not one superfluous word, is beautifully demonstrated by Mark Mitchell as Lazar Wolfe, the butcher, on whom Tevye reneges on his promise of the hand in marriage of his eldest daughter,Tzietel, and Nicki Wendt, as the matchmaker, Yente. Both make the most of every word at their disposal to create fine comic performances.

Mark Mitchell (Lazar Wolfe) - Anthony Warlow (Tevye) 

Hodgeman has wisely resisted the temptation to update the show, eschewing clever stage effects and superfluous nods towards contemporary relevance, in favour of going back to taws, burnishing the components, and letting the show speak for itself. 

Richard Robert’s jigsaw cut-out set design, sympathetically lit by Paul Jackson, does away with the revolving stage by enclosing the action on three sides. Despite some ingenious aspects, there are also awkward scene changes, and for some scenes the setting looked sterile and lacking in atmosphere.

Anthony Warlow and company showing Richard Robert's setting. 

Choreographer, Dana Jolly has lovingly re-produced the original Jerome Robbins choreography, to showcase the brilliance of the original concept in which the cast must perform as ordinary villagers dancing, rather than as dancers dancing.  Her adjustments to accommodate the new setting are tasteful and superbly performed by the company.

Kellie Dickerson, with the help of new musical arrangements, manages to make her comparatively small orchestra sound much larger than it is.

What has been achieved is a production striking in its simplicity, but delivering maximum emotional punch, with a fine cast who have had the opportunity mature into their roles with fine performances destined to become treasured memories for a whole new generation of theatre-goers.


Ronald Maconaghie as Tevye
in
1978 Canberra Philharmonic Society Production. 

Personal Post Script: In 1978 the writer had the opportunity to direct a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in the Canberra Theatre. For this production, the musical director was Terry Vaughn, the setting was designed by Mark Wager, and Tevye was played by Australian Opera baritone, Ronald Maconaghie.

Maconaghie gave a world-class performance in that production, which might have seen him remembered as one of Australia’s great Tevyes. He was hoping to replace Gordon in The Australian Opera’s revivals of “Fiddler on the Roof”, when Gordon, who at the time was already experiencing health problems, eventually relinquished the role.


But it was not to be, because Maconagies performance was not seen beyond Canberra. No-one from The Australian Opera came to Canberra to see the production, and when ill-health eventually forced Hayes Gordon to relinquish the role, it was Max Gillies who was chosen by The Australian Opera to succeed him.




This review also appears in Australian Arts Review. www.artsreview.com.au

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