Monday, July 21, 2014

A Classic Musical and a Comedy About Musicians: Fiddler on the Roof and Living on Love

Fiddler on the Roof (Photo by Diane Sobolewski).

Working on one of those Goodspeed Opera House sets (designed by Michael Schweikardt) that are small miracles of permutation and economy, Rob Ruggiero’s production of Fiddler on the Roof refurbishes the great Broadway show for a more intimate space without sacrificing its dramatic power, the musicality of its Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score, or the breadth of Joseph Stein’s book. (Parker Esse has reproduced the Jerome Robbins choreography – which, given its distinctness and celebrity, is probably the best idea. I assume it’s also a copyright requirement.) With Adam Heller giving a superb performance as Tevye the dairyman, who carries on informal conversations with God as he hauls his cart through the streets of the Russian town of Anatevka, the Goodspeed Fiddler is all that one might hope.

Has there ever been a musical with a better book? Adapting some Sholom Aleichem stories, Stein uses the romantic stories of Tevye’s three eldest daughters to dramatize the wider narrative of the last days of Russian Jewry under the Czars, when the community of Aleichem’s fictional shtletl has to find a way to balance centuries of tradition with the inescapable demands of the world of the brand-new twentieth century. This time around I was struck by the increasing succinctness of the storytelling. Each of the daughters calls on Tevye to throw away an honored tradition. The story of the eldest, Tzeitel (Barrie Kreinik) – who persuades her father to put aside his agreement to marry her off to the middle-aged, widowed butcher Lazar Wolf (John Payonk) and let her wed her own choice, the tailor Motel Kamzoil (David Perlman), the companion of her childhood – takes up most of the first act. Picked up in act two, the relationship between the second eldest, Hodel (Elizabeth DeRosa), and the revolutionary Perchik (Abdiel Vivancos) – barely begun in the previous act, in a bantering tone – has progressed to mutually acknowledged affection, and she agrees to marry him without her father’s permission, though she asks for his blessing. (She gets both.) Even less time is spent on the love of the third daughter, Chava (Jen Brissman), for the non-Jew Fyedka (Timothy Hassler), which breaks Tevye’s heart and which he can’t sanction, arguing in an aside, “If I try to bend that far I will break.” Stein sketches in this love story and its consequences for Tevye in probably less than a page of text, but I can’t think of a subplot in any American musical that’s more deeply affecting. In this production it generates Heller’s strongest moment: an anguished cry from the soul when he insists to his distraught wife Golde (Lori Wilner), “Chava is dead to us.”

There isn’t a weak performance in the cast. You can’t blame Cheryl Stern for the Borscht Belt theatrics of Yente the matchmaker; that’s how Stein wrote her. In the transition from Aleichem’s folk-fable comedy to the Broadway stage, she’s the one character that doesn’t work; she’s pure Broadway. On the other hand, giving Fruma-Sarah, the harpy ghost of Lazar Wolf’s first wife – the pièce de résistance in the dream Tevye invents to convince Golde that Tzeitel should be released from her engagement to the butcher – an Ethel Merman-style belting solo was a hilarious choice on Bock’s part, and Joy Hermalyn does it full justice here. Other standouts: Payonk makes the most of his scenes as Lazar Wolf, as does Jeremy Lawrence in the tiny but charming part of the ancient Rabbi, who (in this version) has moments of comic near-paralysis. And God knows there isn’t a mediocre singer on the Goodspeed stage. As Hodel, DeRosa has the showpiece ballad, “Far from the Home I Love” – when her character leaves Anatevka to join her imprisoned lover in Siberia – and she renders it poignantly. And I especially liked Lori Wilner as Golde, whose sometimes withering sternness has a counterpoint in a warm soprano that soars to the top of her duets with Heller and the ensemble numbers in which she participates. Ruggiero gives her a touching moment at the end of the play when, before she and her family abandon their house – after all the shtetl Jews have been exiled – she takes down the mezuzah from the doorpost.

The “To Life” number at the local tavern (led by Heller and Payonk, with impressive contributions by the male dancers who play the Russians) is a particularly striking example of Goodspeed musical staging; I’m not thinking of the choreography here but of the way Ruggiero groups the singers to create depth and variety. And I loved “Tevye’s Dream,” late in the first act. In the 1971 Norman Jewison movie of Fiddler, this was the most elaborate and the most original number, but it works wonderfully, too, when it’s produced as simply as it is here, the simplicity underscoring the comedy. Few movie musicals derived from stage shows have been as good as Jewison’s, and as the Goodspeed show wrapped up with the familiar moment when Tevye beckons the Fiddler (Max Chucker), the symbol of Jewish life in all its precariousness and whole-heartedness, to follow him and his family on their trek to America, my mind filled in what follows on the screen – the magnificent image of the bearded Jewish men on the raft transporting them on the first leg of their journey away from their village homes in Russia. A stage production as good as Ruggiero’s doesn’t substitute for the glories of the movie, but clearly it doesn’t have to; they work in tandem. Everyone should have the chance to see Fiddler on the Roof on stage.

Douglas Sills and Anna Chlumsky in Living on Love (Photo by T. Charles Erickson).

Living on Love, on the mainstage at Williamstown, is Joe DiPietro’s rewrite of an obscure 1985 Garson Kanin play called Peccadillo about a famous Italian conductor, married to a one-time opera singer, who has signed a contract to publish his memoir but keeps firing his ghost writers. In DiPietro’s version, set in 1957, both the conductor, Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills), and his wife Raquel (Renée Fleming), are narcissistic divas. The play is silly, but it’s a vast improvement over the original, and Kathleen Marshall has directed it as if it were an extended sketch on a TV variety series from the pre-Saturday Night Live era; at its best it makes you think of The Carol Burnett Show. And Fleming, looking like she’s having the time of her life, is the guest star, kicking up her heels, game for anything. At the matinee performance I attended, the audience went wild when she took her curtain call, and I don’t think it was just because she’s Renée Fleming and we’d gotten to hear her sing slivers of arias in a burlesque style all afternoon. It was also because she’d caught the spirit of the enterprise and made us fall in love with her all over again.

Justin Long & Renée Fleming (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
As the absurdly vain, indulgent maestro, so seductive and charming that he seems to have transcended the aging process (Kanin wanted him to be of indeterminate age), Sills gives a remarkably skillful comic performance. At the beginning of the play Vito and his seventh ghost writer, a nervous young man named Robert Samson (Justin Long), part company and Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), an equally nerve-jangled assistant editor from Little, Brown, which is publishing his book, shows up to warn him that if he doesn’t deliver a manuscript he’ll have to return the fifty-thousand-dollar advance, which he and Raquel have, of course, already spent. The upshot is that he persuades Iris to replace Robert, while Raquel decides to write her own autobiography and hires him back as her ghost writer. (He’s her most enthusiastic fan; he took the assignment to write the maestro’s book in the hope that he might breathe the same air as Raquel.) In Peccadillo, the maestro and his wife each end up sleeping one of the biographers, but DiPietro turns Robert and Iris into farce characters and pairs them up, which makes more sense. Long, a young movie actor who played opposite Drew Barrymore in the fake romantic comedy Going the Distance, is very funny as the timid, repressed writer. Chlumsky works hard to match his level of energy, but she doesn’t have the comic relaxation that undergirds his franticness, though she’s better in the second act, when Michael Krass dresses her more glamorously. (His costumes are lovely straight through.)

The other two actors on stage are Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson as a pair of fastidious butlers who have been with Raquel and Vito more or less forever. They’re delightful, and when they move around the props on Derek McLane’s classy set – depicting a New York penthouse apartment – between scenes, they sing opera bits; then, unexpectedly, they burst into a verse of “Makin’ Whoopee” (with Robertson at the piano) before the final scene. The musical highlight, however, comes at the end, when Fleming sings Irving Berlin’s twenties anthem “Always” with Sill joining in the chorus. I felt like I’d been to an A-list dinner party and been given a pastry from the best bakery in Manhattan (Payard, maybe?) to take home.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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