Encore Theatre's 'Fiddler on the Roof' isn't perfect, but it's enough
Photo courtesy of Encore Theatre
For I’m part of a multicultural family, and the classic musical is, in large part, about the struggle to hold on to traditions, rituals and beliefs in a world that’s constantly changing.
Based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, with a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, “Fiddler” focuses on Tevye (Stephen West), a poor milkman who lives with his wife and five daughters in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century. As his daughters approach marrying age, one resists the match made by her parents; another asks for her father’s blessing, not his permission, to marry the man she loves; and the third dares to marry a non-Jew - a crisis that forces Tevye to choose between his faith and his family.
There’s a good deal to recommend director Barbara F. Cullen’s three hour production of “Fiddler,” but one overarching problem is that the world created doesn’t feel wholly authentic. Sharon Larkey Urick’s costumes, while otherwise appropriate, look pristine and spotless, rather than the dusty, dirty, worn rags these people would likely have donned; when the Russians warn Tevye and his family that they’ll have to leave town, the “raid” looks and feels toothless (no matter how hard you throw a pillow, it’s still just a pillow); and the actors’ line delivery - in terms of cadence and inflection - didn’t convince me, either.
Even so, the production has great spirit and some solid vocal ammunition (guided by music director Cheryl Van Duzen). Encore co-founder Dan Cooney originally envisioned the theater as an intimate performance space that would allow theatergoers to focus on a show’s text and music and lyrics; so it’s hardly a surprise that “Fiddler”’s least-busy numbers - “Sunrise Sunset,” “Do You Love Me?” and “Chavela Sequence” - are its best and most moving.
Conversely, Cullen’s “To Life” bites off more than it can (and should) chew, as the Russians in particular struggle with portions of the labored choreography. Plus, during all-hands-on-deck dance numbers like “Tradition,” Encore’s small stage sometimes feels cramped and overburdened.
Yet a good Tevye goes a long way, and Encore has that in West, a voice professor at the University of Michigan. With bear-like physicality, West makes Tevye a larger-than-life, but nonetheless vulnerable and wry, man who’s struggling to reconcile his sense of identity and faith with the revolutionary actions of his daughters. Marlene Inman-Reilly, playing Tevye’s wife Golde, seems a perfect match, with outstanding vocals to boot. And among the supporting cast, the hands-down standout is the charismatic Sebastian Gerstner, whose Perchik - a poor student who tutors Tevye’s daughters and falls in love with Hodel (Clare Lauer) - is an earnest catalyst and advocate for change.
Toni Auletti’s Chagall-inspired set, expertly lit by Daniel Walker, provides flexibility for the musical’s many scene changes, and Cullen’s method for executing them is inspired - as is her vision for Tevye’s portentous dream, despite the scene's bumpiness on opening night.
The consequence of that highly theatrical dream scene, apparently, is an early close to act one; for Encore’s “Fiddler” breaks thereafter, rather than following the Russians’ raid, and it’s not the most natural stopping point.
But these are mostly small quibbles about what is a fairly solid production. So in Tevye-like fashion, I’ll simply shrug and say, “It’s not perfect. But it’s enough.”