Fiddler On The Roof At The Phoenix Theatre Company

Scott Davidson as Tevye, contemplates becoming rich. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)
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Tevye sang to me.

I had never seen the Broadway play, nor had I ever watched the movie. My memories of Tevye, and of his little town of Anatevka, were born out of the show’s original soundtrack album and the liner notes that accompanied it. The memory of Zero Mostel‘s voice and the still photos of his character, Tevye, conversing with God; imploring his wife, Golde; braying the importance of tradition. They all took on the surreal substance of a movie in my head. This is a movie I never actually saw — Mostel did not even appear in the film version — except in my vivid, imagined recollection.

And so, within my mind, Tevye sang to me.

Erikka Makic as the Fiddler. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

Fast forward nearly 60 years(!) and we are sitting in the audience at the Phoenix Theatre Company’s (TPTC) Mainstage, waiting for the curtain to rise on opening night of “Fiddler On The Roof“. My seatmate knows nothing about the show and I have been regaling her with solo renditions of the most popular musical numbers for the last two weeks to raise her level of anticipation and recognition. Of course, by now I am an expert on this subject and could pen a thesis on it. My expectations for excellence run high and my tolerance for underwhelming performance is mercilessly low. The first strains of Klezmer violin settle my spirit and bring me back to that 1905 Russia shtetl.

We are immediately blown away by Douglas Clarke’s stunning set design — the fictitious village of Anatevka, circa 1900, transported to the TPTC stage with such depth and attention to details. Under cover of darkness, set pieces are swiftly swapped out and in, and now we are in Golde’s kitchen; now we are in the town’s tavern; and now we are at a lavish wedding reception. Authentic period wardrobe by Bottari & Case and impeccable music direction by Kevin White complete the illusion.

Scott Davidson as Tevye contemplates his options while his daughter (background) contemplates marriage. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

Without question, Scott Davidson (as Tevye) has finally landed the role he was meant to play. A veteran of many TPTC productions, we would need to go back fifteen years to remember the last time Davidson played Max Bialystock in “The Producers” on national tours. (Hmm, is he channeling my idol, Zero Mostel?) Having played a secondary character in “Fiddler” some thirty years ago, Davidson has come full circle, only landing in the center of that circle with the leading role. (Mazel tov, Scott!) Davidson captures all of the facets of Tevye: the joy and the angst; the frustration and the anger; the hard-headedness, ultimately surrendering to the whims of a mercurial household of six females and, in a broader perspective, a fast-changing world.

Tevye (Scott Davidson) and Golde (Jodie Weiss) share a moment together. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

Jodie Weiss (as Golde) makes the leap from prudish Catholic nun (Sister’s Christmas Catechism) to put-upon Jewish mother, raising five daughters and a dreamer of a husband who regularly chats with the Almighty. Weiss shows yet again that she is a formidable presence on stage, playing the domestic voice of both reason and authority. The diminutive Weiss carries herself as a force to be reckoned with, should the mood suit her. A tiny dynamo who parcels her energies for when she needs them the most, i.e., managing her household and fulfilling the traditional obligations of the wife of the family.

There are some beautiful and touching performances, notably from Dani Apple (playing eldest daughter, Tzeitel) and Nick Barakos (playing Tzeitel’s timid yet ambitious tailor beau, Motel). Their love forms a pivotal relationship that underscores the show’s central theme: the decline of tradition through the seemingly radical perception of listening to one’s heart and challenging paternal privilege. Paternal privilege is, after all, the bedrock of tradition in a patriarchal society. 

Tzeitel (Dani Apple) channels Yente the Matchmaker while Hodel (Xandra Abney) and Chava (Dallyn Brunck) look on. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

Josh Pike plays the radical rabble-rouser, Perchik, with authentic contempt for authority and scorn for tradition. As Perchik, Pike is a liberal activist in one moment and, in the next, is a smooth-talking suitor to Xandra Abney’s Hoda, Teyve’s second of five daughters. A necessary catalyst for change, Perchik is the face of the rebellion that Czar Nicholas is so determined to quash. As such, he is a pariah to all sides.

Of particular interest are the Constable (played by Geoffrey F. Belliston) and the eponymous Fiddler (Erikka Makić). These are two serious characters that keep the story grounded in reality. The former is a friendly officer who is caught between the harsh rules of the Czarist regime and his own moral compass. The latter is a wandering minstrel of sorts, but also an all-seeing observer of the human condition. Belliston and Makić play somber but necessary roles in what is essentially a musical comedy. Their fine and nuanced performances run contrary to the frantic, jaunty pace of the rest of the show, but are needed and very much appreciated.

Bottle Dancers at Tzeitel's wedding. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

By the final curtain, we realized that we have just witnessed one of the finest productions ever to grace the stage at TPTC, and possibly anywhere else. Singing, dancing, lighting, music, performance all came together in all the best ways and totally blew us away. Here is where we must pay most reverent homage to the director, Staś Kmieć. Kmieć is a veteran director and choreographer of multiple productions of Fiddler on the Roof throughout the world, including the Yiddish production. There are aspects of the show that would not exist without Kmieć’s creative input. This was a very special treat for us and it will be a night we will not soon forget.

No story about the Russian pogroms could have a truly happy ending. But in “Fiddler”, as in real life, the happy endings lie in the hopeful new beginnings. Each of the characters we come to love will find their place in the wider world that exists beyond the tiny shtetl of Anatevka. Tevye speaks to our hearts and minds, and we know his frustration and his conflicts. This is no easy task — to be hopelessly optimistic while wallowing in one’s own sorrow and bad fortune. It is the universal condition that makes “Fiddler On The Roof” a timeless classic. It is a lesson for the ages that tradition is what holds us together at the peril of holding us back.

Author

About Joe Gruberman 47 Articles
I'm a writer/producer/filmmaker/teacher based in Phoenix, AZ.

3 Comments

  1. Dear Joe,
    Was it an oversight or was the omission of the director-choreographer of this brilliant production of Fiddler on the Roof not included in this review on purpose? You wrote that you “witnessed one of the finest productions ever to grace the stage at TPTC, and possibly anywhere else.” You mentioned the actors and almost everything but the kitchen sink, but failed to give credit where credit is due. Shows like this have someone who calls all the shots. You should amend the review to include the uber talented Stas Kmiec.

    • I agree most wholeheartedly with you. The show was so good that I had to find a place to simply stop writing due to time constraints. Once I get to my travel destination today I will amend the review to reflect the excellent direction. Thank you for your comment. Joe.

    • Review amended to properly acknowledge Stas Kmiec. See next to last paragraph. Thank you again for caring enough to reach out. — Joe G

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