Theatre Review: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre

Ryan Burke as Tevye and Alexandra Goldstein as Golde. Photo courtesy of Montgomery College.

Montgomery College Dinner Theater’s production of Fiddler on the Roof gives its audience a very good time.  The company received a standing ovation at the end of its opening night, and it was well deserved.

The show is set in Czarist Russia and, through the family of Tevye the dairyman, tells the story of a typical Jewish village called Anatevka and its interactions with the town’s Christian population.  These villages don’t exist any more because, at the turn of the last century, the Czarist regime decided to turn public dissatisfaction away from itself by blaming all the problems in Russia on the Jews.  Each village, town, and city in Russia had a Jewish quarter called a shtetl.  The military raided these shtetls, sometimes leaving no one alive.  The raids were called pogroms, and a minor one where only property is destroyed occurs in the show.  After an edict expelling all Jews from the province with three days notice, Anateveka’s Jewish population moves out.  The point is not to recount horrors, but to reveal and celebrate the philosophy that allows Jews to embrace life under all circumstances, deal with tragedy in creative ways, and survive.  The Jews of Anatevka are living in conditions as shaky as a fiddler playing on a roof, and they know it.

Emily Samuelson (Hodel) and Alicia Alaimo (Chava). Photo by Steven Wolf.

What stabilizes their lives is tradition.  Because danger, not emotional rigidity, is what makes the villagers rely so heavily on tradition for their sense of safety and identity. The production needed a little more menace to be totally believable; but that is hard to create in a show as overwhelmingly life-affirming as Fiddler.

Although the level of enthusiasm from the cast was high, the timing, rhythm, and cadence of the dialogue were not representative of the immigrant Jewish community.    Many nuances were missed, but the dramatic effects remained intact.

Ryan Burke was a warmhearted Tevye with just the right posture for the character’s age.  He created his own version of the role, which was kinder and less explosive than the standard interpretations, but no less humorous or grounded in the traditions of the shtetl community.  Alexandra Goldstein was a bright and acerbic Golde.  She missed a little of the character’s heart, but had many delicious moments, including her entrance right before “Do You Love Me?”  Britt Duff provided excellent comic relief as Yente.  She settled into her role as the opening night went on, and her final scene as she leaves Anatevka for Jerusalem was rewarded with applause.

‘Fiddler on the Roof’ dances with the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast.  They go out of their way to make a real offering to life in the midst of adversity.

Other standout performances came from David Tuttle whose body language was just right for Motel the Tailor, Kayleigh Brennan who played a sincere Tzeitel, Emily Samuelson as Hodel who sang a beautiful “Far From the Home I Love,” Joel DeCandio’s Perchik who was strong on charm but could have used a little more intellectual abstraction, Alicia Alaimo as a sweet and distressed Chava, John Funk as mordant Lazar Wolf, Danny Pushkin’s pleasantly doddering Rabbi, and Preston Henry as the troubled but culturally mired constable.  Jared Calhoun’s Fyedka swaggered a little too much to be believable as someone sensitive and iconoclastic enough to attract a shy, bookish girl and to go against the norms of his community to marry her, and all the couples except Tevye and Golde could have used a little more chemistry. USA, LLC

The music was excellent.  There wasn’t a weak voice in the cast, and the harmonies during the ensemble pieces were beautiful.  The orchestra had professional polish and solidly supported the actors, with shouts out to violin soloist Jeffry Newberger, Klezmer clarinetist Katie Kellert, accordion player John Henderson, and the discreet brass section (Peter Morris, Andy Leech, Itai Yusur, and Marguirite Joutz) that didn’t overwhelm the rest of the instruments.  The vocal quality was strong and every single musical number was a joy.  Jerry Bock’s wonderful songs, including “Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” the lovely “Sabbath Prayer,” “To Life,” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” which is played at weddings everywhere, were all satisfying and well done, but so was everything else.  Musical director N. Thomas Pedersen deserves the credit and thanks for doing such a good job.

Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden created an unusual, very beautiful, and highly functional set.  It was based on the paintings of Marc Chagall and was whimsical and realistic at the same time.  Its cut-out construction was a perfect foil for the gorgeous backlighting designed by Lynn Joslin.  The set pieces fit in with the backdrop perfectly and the fireplace was astonishingly solid-looking, artistic, and authentically Ukrainian.  The costumes by Peter Zakutansky complemented the lighting plot and were quite believable except for jarring touches of bright, highly saturated color in Fyedka’s sash, Tzeitel’s apron, an ensemble member’s black vest and Chava’s yellow handkerchief that were definitely out of place.  Yente’s outfit was marvelous, as was Frumah Sarah’s ghost costume.

The choreography by Emma Jaster made the most of a small space.  It suited the skill of the actors and was both intricate and exuberant.  The sound design by John Regan was so flawless I didn’t notice it, which is the sign of success in this realm.

Alexandra Goldstein (Golde) and Britt Duff (Yente). Photo by Steven Wolf.

A number of Judaica details were missed, and this is surprising in an area with a large Jewish population to turn to for advice.  The women should have all their front hair under their headscarves, Orthodox Jewish men do not take off their hats under any circumstances, the wedding canopy in a small village is a prayer shawl tied to sticks, and the groom and then the bride are brought to the canopy by their parents and don’t saunter in by themselves (especially the bride whose veil is opaque).  Although these details are picky, they definitely broke the illusion.  When the show first came out in the 1960s, many people who had lived through Czarist pogroms were still alive.  They all said the show was extremely authentic and that fact meant a great deal to them.  It’s important to get the cultural references right to preserve this bit of living history.

But a number of the details were exactly right.  The bride circled the groom the required seven times at the wedding, Golde helped her daughter drink the wine during the ceremony, and Motel followed Orthodox Jewish precepts and did not touch Tzeitel during “Miracle of Miracles” because they were not married.  He kept reaching out to do so and drawing back, which was very touching.  Motel and Tzeitel also held on to opposite ends of a handkerchief after the wedding ceremony, as did the rabbi when he danced with the sisters.

Speaking of the wedding, the bottle dancers were great fun and the crowd’s enthusiastic response to them and the festivities added a real level of excitement to the show.  The ensemble in general was right on point and responded to the action on the stage authentically all the way through the evening.

Fiddler on the Roof dances with the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast.  They go out of their way to make a real offering to life in the midst of adversity.  Mazel tov to all involved!

Fiddler on the Roof plays through July 1, 2012 at Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre in the Theatre Arts Building, 51 Mannakee Street,  in Rockville, Maryland. For reservations,  call the Box Office at 240-567-7676, or visit online for more information.