‘Fiddler’ raises roof at Edison Theatre

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

What would you rather do — see the St. Louis Cardinals win their first World Series Championship in 24 years or see yet another production of Fiddler on the Roof? For many St. Louisans and Parents Weekend visitors at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, the answer was to go to see the superb production of Fiddler on the Roof, while videotaping the championship game at home. Those who made that choice were not disappointed. With a truly memorable portrayal of Tevye by David Weiss, a 19-year-old Wash U theater/English sophomore from Norman, Okla., backed up by a fine supporting cast, the university’s Performing Arts Department made the very familiar musical fresh and extremely engaging.

Fiddler on the Roof, set in the Russian Jewish shtetl of Anatevka in 1905, first opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on Sept. 22, 1964, with the immortal Zero Mostel in the physically and emotionally demanding role of Tevye the Dairyman. Fiddler became one of the all-time favorite Broadway musicals with 3,242 performances from that first run. Since then, with other theatrical and film giants as Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Luther Adler and Chaim Topol in the protagonist’s role, the play has enjoyed enduring success. Among its numerous local performances are several appearances at the Fox Theatre and the Muny, to say nothing of the countless high school and college productions.

Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, often called “the Jewish Mark Twain,” Fiddler’s music is by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; book by Joseph Stein, based specifically on Aleichem’s stories about “Tevye and His Daughters.”

Tevye, the hard-working dairyman of the village of Anatevka in Czarist Russia of 1905, is not a scholar and certainly is not the “rich man” he dreams of becoming. Yet his profound belief in God and his willingness, Moses-like, to constantly have “face-to-face” conversations and even arguments with his Creator, is portrayed with superb range and skill by David Weiss. In physique, Weiss more closely resembles Mandy Patinkin than Zero Mostel, and he uses his own gifts of body language, a strong acting and singing voice and excellent sense of timing to fully realize Tevye’s dilemmas as his daughters one by one question the “Tradition” which he feels is being threatened by “a world turning upside down” and the encroachment of modernism.

In addition to Weiss, strong performances are contributed by Lauren Dusek as Tevye’s strong-willed wife of 25 years, Golde; Sari Abraham as Yente the Matchmaker and by Jackie Dodd, Carolina Reiter, Catherine Moreton and Molly Salomon as their daughters. Micha Herstand is believable in the role of Motel, the humble tailor who works up the courage to tell Tevye he wants to marry his daughter, because “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness.” Nathan Wineinger delivers a strong performance as Lazar Wolf, the butcher, who must accept the humiliation of being rejected as a husband even after he and Tevye agree that he would marry Tzeitel.

Working with the very familiar material, excellent work is obvious on the part of Jeffrey Matthews, artistic director; Lisa Campbell-Albert, musical director; Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, choreographer; Justin Barisonek the scenic designer, whose sets are evocative and often stunning; Leah Battin, costume designer; Charles Chapman, lighting designer (especially the Sabbath and wedding scenes); Stephanie Caplin, properties manager and Sarah Mackowski, stage manager. The band on opening night did an admirable job of replicating the original music by Jerry Bock for the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. There were a few instances of the music being too loud for the dialogue to be easily heard and there were some discordant notes, but these problems could be corrected easily in rehearsal.

The youthful cast brought new dynamism and freshness to a story that was in danger of becoming hackneyed by over-exposure.

In 2006, we are exactly 101 years after the 1905 depiction of Fiddler on the Roof. For many American Jews of Eastern European descent, the story of Anatevka and the musings and struggles of Tevye and his daughters and sons-in-law are idealized versions of our own ancestry. A century later, we continue to wrestle with our own issues of when to resist change out of respect for “Tradition” or to embrace it out of realism or to maintain “shalom bayit,” peace in our homes.

The play will run on the Edison Stage through Nov. 5.

For tickets call 3l4-935-6643, or visit Metrotix.com.

Sign up for Your Morning Light