Fiddler on the Roof at Arena Stage

When director/choreographer Jerome Robbins came on board, he asked playwright Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock.. ..what their musical was really about, and he refused to accept their answers that it was simply a story of a milkman and his five daughters. Finally, Harnick replied that the show was about tradition, and, replied Robbins, That’s it. Write that.

The Tradition that is “Fiddler on the Roof” arrived at Arena Stage, swooping in from the rafters amid stomps and an invisible orchestra. The Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage’s stage in-the-round, served to accept it, and it was well met. There are three things we find notable about “Fiddler”; The writing, especially that for Tevye, is so captivating and innocently clever that a novice could get away with the execution with which to draw reactions. (“You know the jokes are coming, but you still laugh” is the mantra of a good production of Fiddler.) The dancing is a largely forgotten surprise that is a pleasant reveal and always met with great fanfare and extended applause. Finally, there is the crouching, lurking air of a somber conclusion. It’s a rather unusual send off for such a runaway broadway hit.

The Venue
In the Arena Stage version we have many of those elements at play, and if you heard whispers from the audience praising the ingenuity of the small stage and resources, you could deduce they had not seen a show at the Fichandler Stage before. The theatre itself never fails to make the most of its in-the-round presence. That being said, our only grievance was that we never felt the presence of a sunset. This was something many would deem integral to Fiddler, and while we enjoyed the sly spiraled wood hanging over us, brilliantly complimenting the rising and falling wooden planks below, the sunset was a prop the fog machines and lighting didn’t produce. Two other points of note were that it may be best to visit a theatre-in-the-round outside of the cold and flue season. Sadly, there was an unwavering presence of sneezes and coughs among the audience that echoed throughout the theatre, often at un-choice moments of dialogue. This of course is no fault of the theatre, but unless you are in the first row, you would likely be inclined to ask if the show could “turn up the volume” on the cast’s speaking and singing. More on that later. We were also told to turn off our phones, as in, we were told to do so specifically by an usher, despite the fact that it was still intermission. It was a bit rude, and while many had their phones out, we were told to put ours away. We had already snapped the above picture at the start and were not taking pictures during intermission. An awkward and unnecessary action from the Arena Stage staff.

The Cast
To be frank, Fiddler centers around how good your Tevye is. It’s a role that requires an extra workload because it asks the unique task of its actor to break the fourth wall, yet remain in a state of serious character so as not to distract from the story. Tevye is a man of the people both on stage and in the audience, and while you could attribute his dry soliloquies to that as presented for toward the interests of God alone, it’s the live audience who gets and gives back the most from it. Another unique aspect of Tevye is that it is one of very few starring roles in a musical which does not require strong singing skills. Tevye doesn’t need vibrato, he needs an able delivery, a hefty foot and a stern, but lovable stubbornness. Jonathan Hadary, this incarnation of Tevye, fits that role well. There were a few lines we felt were hesitated, almost second-guessed on, but we could still see him as a likeable Tevye. (It should be noted we were also present for the National Theatre’s 2010 presentation of Fiddler a few years back with Harvey Fierstein. Fierstein’s limping Tevye drew more laughs and sympathy. You won’t find the National Theatre’s version overshadowed here, but for the space, it’s still an experience. -especially if you can get seats in the “A” row. Being in the first, “A” row will make you feel as though you have a cue and are expected to sing at any time. There was a distinct correlation between the invested facial features of the crowd and the distance to the stage.) Nonetheless, Hadary is likable and a worthy successor and much of this success is found by way of his accompanying wife, Golde, as portrayed by Ann Arvia. There was much delight and anticipation of her lines (also Yente’s, Valerie Leonard) and it would be safe to say here that Jonathan Hadary’s Tevye was almost “as good as Golde”. Rounding out the cast are many first-timers to the Arena Stage, though you wouldn’t guess it as they navigated the space masterfully. -And a return cast member from the National Theatre’s Fiddler, and even Arena Stage’s earlier “My Fair Lady”. (which we were also present for.) While Golde is about as close as we get to a show-stopper, one role of note was Chris sizemore’s Constable, who despite minimal speaking parts, stuns the audience with a long and thundering line to introduce the Russians with his “Za va, shas da rovia” in the middle of “To Life”. (Note: We honestly can’t recall if it was him or one of the Russians who sang the line. Normally, it’s one of the Russians, not the constable, but we feel as though the constable did it in this version.) The award for most satisfying reproduction of a classic would go to Tevye’s daughters in their Matchmaker number. Bravo, girls.
One of the most imposing aspects of Fiddler is its somber conclusion, and our most significant observation really hit us here. You get a trade-off using a theatre in-the-round. It will produce a fresh and adventurous perspective no matter where you sit, but because of its size restrictions, Tevye can’t pull the wagon. It’s an iconic aspect of the character and the musical as a whole. The entire show opens with the wagon and immediately allows the audience to sympathize with Tevye. The wagon appears in the beginning, and once or twice throughout the performance, but is noticeably absent from the final scene. It needed to be there at the end, but it couldn’t be there due to the in-the-round theatre format. While there is no written dialogue in the script as the Fiddler character plays the theme for the last time, Fierstein improvised a slight “well, come on!” to the Fiddler as he pulled the cart off stage. It was a hint of modern brilliance from a great Tevye, but here, we see Hadary’s Tevye merely stand in a spotlight. There are normally two ways to conclude the show, the head nudge to the Fiddler character, or the Fiddler character plays to a fade out. This version opts for the former. It is a conclusion that pales in comparison to Fierstein’s interpretation, and without the cart, doesn’t deliver the final shred of sympathetic despair with which to convey the plight of Tevye’s family and friends.

The Choreography/Lighting & Effects/Costumes/Music & Sound
As we touched upon earlier, the dancing of Fiddler tends to really steal the show. Everyone already knows Tevye’s dialogue will shine, but people always seemed stunned when the energetic and convivial dance numbers explode. We came for the stomping and we got what we hoped for. This is where an in-the-round space really shines. Everyone gets a good view of the routines and they are well rehearsed and executed. We like to watch for two things during a stage show; That non-dancing cast members are as into it as the dancing ones and that any cast member that dances off stage does so even when out of line of the audience’s visual line of sight, that is, keeping the character going in case some seats are still able to see beyond leg and wings. The cast here did both, and yay, it was good.
The costumes felt humble, (a good thing) though we found ourselves having an inner debate in regards to the wedding rings worn by both Tevye and Golde. Taking place in Imperial Russia, the wedding rings are on the wrong finger and hand. This can be forgiven, as Topol didn’t even WEAR a ring. Neither did Fierstein! (We may very well be the first to point this tidbit out!)
Though we did not feel a sunset, the lighting was good, and while we won’t spoil it here, the special effects and costumes during the dream sequence of the first Act were delightful while still retaining a minimal atmosphere.
The music is as you remember it; catchy and alive. It doesn’t feel muffled beneath the stage, though along with some of the actor’s mic levels, it could be bumped up a few notches. Many of the long-running musicals achieve such life through a strong opening number (Hint: Naaaaaaaants ingonyama bagithi Babaaaa!!) and “Tradition” is a good example of such. We only have a few minor grievances with the tunes. Tevye’s “If I Were A Rich Man” isn’t fun enough. It’s a song that should be less singing and more breaking into joyous, raspy voice. That isn’t here, and because the number occurs so early it feels as though something was left out of Tevye’s personality when it boils down to “serious time” for him. Joshua Morgan’s Motel is excessively awkward and overplayed. It detracts from his song as well. Michael Vitaly Sazonov’s Perchik has a few notes that felt flat, but we were unable to determine if this was an acoustics issue, as only a few notes leaned that way. The conducting was on, as was Alex Alferov’s Fiddler character and live playing.

In-the-round Fiddler on the Roof is an experience you should see if you haven’t seen the musical in a long while, or at all. We’re honestly surprised this isn’t all over the Arena Stage marketing material. This show should be advertised as “Fiddler In-The-Round” as it’s quite possibly the first time we’ve seen it performed as such. Peddling the “round” experience would garner more attention. It’s a unique experience, and not everyone knows The Fichandler Stage utilizes the format simply by the name alone. Regardless, it’s a great Two-Act evening, and one we would recommend.

-IIM?