Theatre Run: Tuesday 11 - Saturday 15 March 2014

Performance Reviewed: Tuesday 11 March 2014 (Press Night)


Paul Michael Glaser and his delightful troupe of fellow players segue us into Fiddler on the Roof with this instantly recognisable ode to, unsurprisingly, traditional values, roles and aspirations within the quaint Jewish community who inhabit the show, and yet it also serves as a perfect tonal leaping point for what is fundamentally in and of itself a thoroughly traditional yet delightfully characterful, somewhat old-fashioned observational slice of charming musical theatre. There is no grand overriding narrative, save for the occasional allusions to the wider civil unrest and approaching revolution of early 20th Century Tsarist Russia, which now and again comes knocking in the form of an over-zealous, potentially anti-semitic constable and his enforcers, but for the most part this is a measured, slower-burning study of character, society and even faith within a simple rural community. Many of the musical interludes from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s now iconic score, from ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ to ‘Matchmaker’, clever and individual as they may be, are mostly stop-start affairs to give us a more palatable understanding of the characters themselves as opposed to driving forward the light semblance of plot.

Glaser (of former Starsky and Hutch fame) plays Tevye, the hard-working dairyman of small Jewish town Anatevka, a humble yet unwealthy man who faces the increasingly challenging whims and wishes of his three elder daughters, Tzeitel (Emily O’Keefe), Hodel (Liz Singleton) and Chava (Claire Petzal).  As Fiddler on the Roof progresses and the audience are gradually enveloped within the winning folds of the Anatevka community, each daughter in turns finds herself drawn to a particular sweetheart, and each time the moral, emotional and religious burden it places on Tevye becomes heavier and more difficult for him to accept. Again, this is not a show which leans on any overt socio-political or historical commentary or plights, but rather family, friendship and faith as the cornerstones of its more conventional and slightly sedentary narrative.

Fortunately it is a story and show littered with winning, memorable characters, and this current touring production, directed and choreographed by Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Harwood, has injected fresh life into proceedings not only with its superlative casting and spirited, characterful choreography, but also the effective approach of disposing of an orchestra in place of having the cast and company play instruments live on stage. It’s difficult to shake the sense that perhaps Harwood and crew had been won over by a similar approach in Once the Musical, but as with that particular production (and it’s similarly European slant), the inclusion of live instrumentation on-stage, even by the main players, helps invoke a sense of community spirit and has the music feel far more organic and less disembodied from the show as a whole.

Glaser himself, similarly, breathes life into practically every moment he is on stage, which is fortunately the vast majority of the show. His character work as Tevye is brilliantly observed, charmingly idiosyncratic and occasionally genuinely touching, bolstered by a supremely convincing Russian accent and an effortless charm and naturalistic chemistry with his co-stars that rounds out an overall quite wonderful and thoroughly winning performance. Karen Mann is great fun as his spirited, steely wife Golde, and the pair go to town in making their Act II duet ‘Do You Love Me?’ an inoffensive but adorable highlight, whilst O’Keefe, Singleton and Petzal as the three elder daughters all give strong supporting turns and beautiful vocals, mining a great deal of heart and conviction from their roles which by todays standards would perhaps look a trifle underwritten or token.

Steven Bor proves himself a superb, gifted dancer-actor-singer triple threat, giving a commanding Act II opening vocal in ‘Now I Have Everything’ as modern-thinking young teacher Perchik, whose untraditional attitudes causes ripples amongst the community but attracts the attention of young Hodel. Jennifer Douglas as the titular Fiddler is a welcome presence throughout, symbolic of tradition within the Anatevka society and Tevye’s own values and principles, and whether perched atop a roof or nimbly navigating her way around the stage as Tevye’s musical conscience, she is always a delightful complement to the aesthetic and sound of almost every scene. Finally, praise must go to Susannah Van Den Berg, who not only did a terrific job understudying as local Matchmaker/busybody Yente but was also additionally genuinely hilarious playing her usual role as the ghostly and bombastically vengeful Fruma-Sarah in one of the show’s more outlandish and comedic sequences (‘The Dream’).

At almost three hours long (with a somewhat overlong Act I in particular), and feeling very much a book and show of its original era in regards to tale and tone (the original production premiering in 1964), Fiddler on the Roof may prove to be, if anything, a little too traditional for those weened on the more contemporary, showy and faster paced stylings of recent musical theatre. Sweeping generalisations have no real place in objective critiquing, but those looking for a punchy, modern musical experience will likely want to knock a star off the rating, for Fiddler is likely not to be to your tastes. However, for those who do not place too heavy an emphasis on intricate plot or punchy pacing, and are ready to be embraced within the delightful, distinctive and utterly charming social fold of Anatevka and Fiddler on the Roof, feel free to comfortably add an extra star on, for there is character, heart and indeed, entertainment, to be found here in abundance, and this latest production does a thoroughly impressive job of mixing traditions both old and new.

RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)


FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is running at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday 11 to Saturday 15 March.
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Press tickets for this performance of Fiddler on the Roof were provided courtesy of the Birmingham Hippodrome directly. The author gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.