IF YOU GO
What: Musical about a Jewish father with five daughters and a love of tradition
When: Tuesday through Sunday evenings with selected matinées through Feb. 16, 2013.
Where: 1380 Colonial Boulevard, Fort Myers (in Royal Palm Square)
Cost: $35 to $55.
Information: 239-278-4422 or broadwaypalm.com
Something Else: Ticket prices include meal & show; show-only tickets available
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
FORT MYERS — Best. "Fiddler." Ever.
Really. And no, this is no spiel.
I've seen "Fiddler on the Roof" four times in four years. Trust me when I tell you not to miss the production now playing at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre. Fresh direction and bold performances open new dimensions in the show.
Or if you prefer: Oy gevalt! This isn't your yenta's "Fiddler."
Prather Entertainment Group ran "Fiddler" at the company's Lancaster, Pa., Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in August and September before launching a 33-city national tour. The show will play through February 2013 in Fort Myers before heading back out on the road.
"Fiddler" itself is based on a book of short stories by Sholem Aleichem about a Jewish milkman and his family living in Tsarist Russia in the very early 1900s. It has been a professional and community theater staple since opening on Broadway in 1964, with four revivals, three West End productions and a hit 1971 film in the production history.
What is so revolutionary about this particular "Fiddler on the Roof?"
For starters, director Dean Sobon steers the show away from the brooding, introspective and often terminally depressing shoals that so many "Fiddlers" wreck upon. Sobon respects the material but doesn't dwell on the violence, racism or pogroms. His vision seizes on the heart of what "Fiddler" — and the vividly positive message at the center of the show — ought to be: a hopeful faith in a better future.
Listen to the songs in "Fiddler." The show, for all that the characters have virtually nothing but their faith, cannot be labeled desolate. Tunes like "To Life," "Miracle of Miracles," "Now I Have Everything," and plaintive "Do You Love Me?" sing of optimism, anticipation and possibilities. "Fiddler" explores beginnings — not endings; the magic bursting forth on stage proves that.
Much of Sobon's work might be invisible to the audience, although each improves the show an imperceptible bit. His show simply feels faster, fresher and more alive than any previous "Fiddler" I've seen. Choreography and scenes move at a brisk pace. Dramatic, evocative lighting from Russell A. Thompson allows Steve Gilliam's functional set to sweep from lowest valley to highest mountaintop in mood, adding exceptional depth to scenes.
One of the touches I loved most came during the final scenes. As Golde exited the cottage, she lovingly fastened the shutters one last time, as if closing the pages on the family's old life — and looking toward the future. Overall, actors seemed to touch the set more than in any other "Fiddler," whether it be the mezuzah inside and outside each door, benches, pails or a flag at the Anatevka train station. These simple acts add realism and make the show less of a frozen tableau.
"Fiddler" has never been a "fast" show; the first half clocks in at a bladder-bursting 90 minutes. Word of advice: skip the refills. Even with several songs and dialogue sequences chopped from the second half, the show doesn't let out until after 10 p.m. Yet, Sobon and assistant director/choreographer Lauren Loercher-Sobon (his wife) deftly punch up the numbers. They also move the titular fiddler (a beguiling, intriguing Danny Boman) off the roof and into the thick of the action.
While Boman never says a word, giving the character a voice through his music, his bow and his posture adds an inestimable jolt to the show. The fiddler becomes Tevye's alter ego and gives depth to contemplative scenes. Boman's jaunty style enlivens the show to no end.
Another welcome change: a (relatively) younger, slimmer Tevye (Rob Summers) who visibly injects life and a more physical, personal touch to the character; Tevye need not resemble a Jewish Santa sans the suit. With just a handful of days of preparation, he owns the role. "If I Were A Rich Man" feels far less like a droning dirge than a playful daydream of a satisfied, if slightly envious, contented gentleman. "To Life," the barroom scene with Lazar Wolf, feels authentic, not exaggerated; I love that Summers treats the character as a human — not a stand-in for every suffering father in the world.
In contrast, Jennie Hollander hews closely to the usual shrewish harridan of a Golde. A softer Tevye leaves Golde even more stern — and Hollander elevates the character with barking orders and waspish shrieks. Yet, piping "Do You Love Me?" shows the pair's affection. Look too for Allison Fund as third daughter Chava, the one who elopes with a Russian soldier; she brings unexpected depth to scenes where Tevye turns his back on her.
For all its strengths — and there are many — this "Fiddler" is not perfect. Casting seems to have sacrificed a bit of vocal ability for stronger acting talent. On the whole, I prefer the tradeoff, especially as "Fiddler" is more an "acting" show than one filled with bold solos. Yet, even the one showstopper "Tradition" falls a bit flat. Lively choreography - especially the bottle dance and the giddy bar sequence - do not disappoint.
The costumes, colorful layers of fabric, head scarves and prayer shawls, prove an interesting palette; that's not the issue. Most of the facial hair screams fake from the back of the theatre — and possibly from the parking lot. Granted, there's a relatively small cast (for "Fiddler") and parts of the ensemble play multiple roles, but the faux fuzz bothers to distraction in more than a few scenes. Scene changes should speed up as the cast and crew acquaint themselves with the Broadway Palm stage over the next two months.
Looking for a better, more imaginative take on a classic that bored you to tears the first three times around? Mazel tov to that. Pop your head into a prayer shawl and check out "Fiddler on the Roof."
To life, to life, l'chaim! Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.