|Eric Polani Jensen|
photo by Tim Fuller
Only a few performances to go at the Herberger. Don't skip it. This is not the same old "Fiddler on the Roof." For all its rich tradition and predictable comfort, Arizona Theatre Company's (ATC) 'Fiddler' plays a different tune in several important and highly effective ways.
Director David Ira Goldstein stayed beautifully true to the familiar tale that has offered a nearly flawless musical theatre blueprint for 50 years. Few are those who can't hum "If I Were a Rich Man" or who don't sway to the ingrained swell of "Sunrise, Sunset." The story tells of Tevye, a Jewish peasant milkman with five daughters and a huge heart. In frequent one-sided visits with God, he navigates shifts and chasms that arise between his village's stable traditions and the emerging rocky changes in courtship/marriage rituals as well as those lurking in anti-Semitic Russian politics of the early 1900s.
The first pervasive quality of ATC's "Fiddler" that outshines most productions is apparent before the house lights dim. Melding artistic mediums, the stage is wrapped in a culturally significant vibrance. That is, it fairly bursts with lively tapestries reminiscent of Marc Chagall. Chagall was a Russian modernist who drew inspiration for a good share of his work from Jewish folk culture, from Tevye's world. (Many theatres maintain that one of several of Chagall's famed violinist paintings are the basis for "Fiddler's" title.) Those backdrops on stage, which are eventually used to depict violent acts against the Jews, are only a portion of the technical perfection this production offers.
Other notable technical elements include the lighting design, a well utilized rotating stage and the sparse set of Tevye's second daughter's (Hodel's) departure scene. Lighting angles and hues depict the seasonal changes by the way they bend and shift amongst the oak tree branches in most scenes. That creatively colorful lighting scheme is punctuated in the second act by a tree-less winter departure so barren and stark that it evokes chills. The desolate gray vanishing points at the train station mirror Hodel's (Taylor Pearlstein's) mournful "Far from the Home I Love."
"It will be a hard life," she concedes to her heart-heavy father in what becomes a thematic statement that transcends their specific situation, "but it will be less hard together."
Beyond good-natured, Eric Polani Jensen defines his Tevye with a jovial sparkle in his eyes as he reckons the cultural revolutions swirling around him by visiting with his God. Jensen's particular Tevye enriches the role in today's climate because of his incurably soft paternal heart. It's stifled display is most visceral in the scene where often his character explodes with angry vegeance as he disowns his disobedient daughter. But not Jensen's Tevye. As fierce as his faith and compliant tendencies are, even when his religion and tradition demand, Jensen's Tevye emits a ravaged sob rather than raging against the daughter he feels mandated to shun. Full of curiosities and a vulnerable search to make his religion relevant to the changes around him, he is nonetheless incapable of refusing his daughters their own loves.
ATC's show is also certainly choral ear candy, but musically, the highlight of this "Fiddler on the Roof" is the clarinet on the chair. An unforgettable clarinetist, Greg Armstrong, introduces the Bottle Dance. He's joined onstage by a traditional accordion as well. Regrettably, the fiddler on stage, as important as Tevye's shadow, does not actually play his instrument.
In the famous dream sequence, the staging and choreography make an innovative leap, too. They call upon an early 20th century musical bane, the organ grinder monkey band. Again with real musicians on stage, the dream is accompanied by stilted players who make mechanically halting movements, complete with the lightly clashing hand cymbals. While Tevye brings his nightmare to life so that he and wife Golde (masterfully played throughout by Anne Allgood) can un-arrange their oldest daughter's marriage, the ensemble moves like a marionette chorus turned zombie as they dance between the tombstones and the stage rotates to dizzying effect.
So many small details beyond these cited added to the whole of this new and memorable "Fiddler on the Roof." ATC refined technical detail to create layers of aching meaning. The company placed remarkable musician performers onstage alongside the characters, elevating its artistic integrity in an innovative way. Finally, it employed creative choreographic elements to effectively contemporize a dream scene that for all its well-known humor has (in other iterations) grown stale in its predictable presentation.
Enjoy it because it's Bock and Harnick's "Fiddler." See and grow with it because it's ATC's "Fiddler." The show itself is timeless in the way it cradles change and revolution--across generations, across religions, across cultures--with a steadfast belief in our higher purpose.
What ATC presents with sage clarity and nuanced detail is a traditional "Fiddler on the Roof" with fresh and uplifting variations. This new old telling whispers mightily: If Fiddler is a poignant story of crumbling tradition and inhumane politics, it is a greater tale of faith, love and human connection.