Saturday, 16 April 2016

Fiddler strikes a merry sad chord in 2016
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Royal City Musical Theatre's remount of Fiddler on the Roof after a 16-year breather can't help but take on added poignance, significantly so. In 2000 when last performed by RCMT, 9/11 was still 18 months in the future. The occidental 1st-world knew precious little of the religion of Islam, not to mention Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden and would not even be able to conjure the utterly misnamed "Arab Spring" and its offshoot ISIL that has produced a worldwide diaspora of millions from the Middle East.

In 1964 when the original Jerome Robbins production of Fiddler hit Broadway, it was a time still three years ahead of the Six Day War in Israel. The show's energy, enthusiasm, and empathy for pre-WWI Tsarist Russian agrarian Jews suffering a pogrom from their village Anatevka fairly leapt off the boards of the Imperial Theatre thanks to its tuneful music and its choreography. But importantly, too, were its nods at that epoch's brave new world just emerging S. of 49 : VietNam, Betty Friedan's call-out of The Feminine Mystique, MLK and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Fiddler brought a wise dairy farmer Reb Tevye with all his ironies through his repeated "On the one hand \ On the other hand" soliloquies to God and the audience that ultimately would charm some 3,242 folks out of relatively few shekels -- around $10 in '64 -- during its original 8-year continuous run on Broadway. The state of Israel was but 16 years young, the Holocaust not even two decades dead. Fiddler gave Jews a sense of renewed community, identity, fidelity as a people.

How it's all put together : Locally RCMT's remount 16 years along under the ever-clever eye and hand of director [RCMT Artistic Director] Valerie Easton is just plain fun. Today was an afternoon's delight of delicious dance, song sequences and a tale all families can relate to : how we need to bend lest we break in the face of our children's and our world's changing social commands and cultural habits. In the words of the band Semisonic in their instant classic "Closing Time" : "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." Given current events, its closing scene is an absolute heart-break that found my eyes wet indeed. 

All the usual suspects are trotted out to engage and amuse and beguile us once again as they did in the 1971 film adaptation starring Chaim Topol as Tevye : Tevye (Warren Kimmel). Golde (Jennifer Poole). The marrying daughters Tzeitel (Natasha Zacher), Hodel (Jenika Schofield) and Chava (Julia Ullrich). And of course the mischievous matchmaker Yente (Sylvia Zaradic).

Papa thinks he runs the show. He decides, with Yente's help, who his girls will marry. He thinks. Oh. How. Silly. They decide. They have succumbed to some notion called love. Pshaw and p-spit on the ground, Tevye responds, not on my watch he asserts repeatedly, vehemently, fruitlessly. 

Yes. "Tradition". Only in quotes because it's the opening number. But also its usual meaning -- the rusted, dented phenomenon that's equally embraced and laughed at and ignored generation after generation. The precision movements this troupe of 31 performers manage -- the youngest but in Grade 3 -- is of signal importance, an eminent feature throughout. In "Tradition", the show's breathtaking opener, that's 62 arms, 62 hands and 62 legs that have to do heavenly finger-points and angled Russian-peasanty side-steps called in dance parlance the "grapevine" -- all in crisp and crafty unison as they criss-cross and set the stage, literally, for the night. The fancy footwork could not have been performed more compellingly anywhere than RCMT presented people with this afternoon.

The plot is quite simple : it depicts 1905 day-to-day life in the village shtetl of Anatevka as Tevye's family and the townsfolk scurry about doing daily chores. Tevye's horse pulls up lame so he has to lug his milk cart about by hand (which of course spares the director a huge prop & character complication). The rest of it is the horny young men falling for the charming teen-age daughters and they them, the town gossiping gleefully, a wedding celebration,  a drunken outing at the pub, and then the fated pogrom. 

Come the Tsar's pogrom edict, the village break-up will send Tevye and Golde plus their two youngest daughters to America to camp out with Uncle Avram -- lucky them -- while two other daughters and their husbands head west to Poland (the 3rd in exile with her pre-Bolshevik agitator husband in Siberia).

What this show brings to the stage : Community. Among families. Among generations of families. Fiddler is a favourite in Japan. A Japanese journalist in America to interview for the current Broadway re-mount of the show broke into tears as she turned on her recorder : "We love this play because it tells the story of Japan," she insisted. Who would have thought? Or what about today's Syrian migrants. Perhaps equally for them? And ironic, too, given Vlad Putin's contribution to their flight paths.

But endless comparison with current events aside, what this show brings to the stage is a reminder what altogether smart and quick-witted contributions play when linked symbiotically : lyrics (Sheldon Harnick, now 91 and a central player in producing the current NYC re-mount), music (Jerry Bock) and book [storyline] (Joseph Stein).

Borrowing from my favourite theologian Marcus Borg, I would characterize the experience in 2016 as "Falling in love with Fiddler again for the first time." As both my wife and I did unreservedly & unhesitatingly. 

Production values that hi-lite the production : What strikes the eye from the get-go are Brian Ball's stage-wagons that flip 360-degrees and slide about effortlessly. Exterior peasant bungalow to interior kitchen \ larder. Village tailor shop to town pub. 

Costume Designer Christina Sinosich had a delirious! go of it patching together all the fin de siecle Russian peasant wear, the Jewish wedding togs, the contrasting gentile townspeople costuming and the gendarmerie uni's. 

Gerald King's lighting design was particularly effective, isolating Tevye with pin-spots for his interior monologues and ironic chats with Chum God. Red pick-up for the ghost of Fruma-Sarah (Erin Palm) as she was hoist on cables above the townsfolk worked great.

In the end, however, what the exiting show-goer remarks and exults endlessly about is Valerie Easton's direction and unmistakable choreographic footprint on this show. The tavern scene of the two generations kibitzing and challenging and jousting with one another. Or Zach Wolfman's Perchik first introducing Hodel to social dancing from Kiev, then to the balance of the bunch at the wedding. Enough! of the traditional mano-a-mano stuff by men trying to out-macho one another (fun though it is to watch regardless). Then there's the bottle dance with wine bottles perched atop the men's fedoras. Priceless accomplishment against gravity, not one bit of dropsy, while the boys did Russian kazachok kick-out steps slo-mo. Just one more reason to go to live theatre rather than do Hollywood 2-D off the tube.

But also the songs under RCMT founder James Bryson's ever-so-capable musical direction. The faves : "Tradition". "If I Were A Rich Man". "Sunrise, Sunset". "Do You Love Me?" [which clearly owes its pedigree to Lerner & Lowe's "I Remember It Well" most famously performed by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in the show Gigi]. And because she's been outcast for marrying a gentile Russian, Hodel's "Far From The Home I Love" is a particularly touching lament. 

Big voices abound : Kimmel and Poole first and foremost. The sisters' pipes too. And not an off-key note from the men, either. Add Zaradic's priceless monologues of yada-yada vocephilia and the moments of aural delight in this show tot up beyond count. 

(N.B. The memory of an earlier talent contest performance in Seattle of "Far From The Home I Love" inspired Director Easton to dedicate the show to her effervescent actress / songstress / dancer daughter Amy who was claimed, tragically, at but age 32 last year by leukaemia. Her time thrilling Vancouver playgoers was before BLR was launched, so I regrettably did not have the pleasure of seeing her perform. As a father of two generations -- pushing 50 the first, nearing 25 the second -- I ache at this news. Godspeed! to you Valerie and family.)

Who gonna like : My first excursion on the boards was in a high school rendition of Annie Get Your Gun in 1962. I've been a sucker for musicals ever since. Big-stage productions like this one that fill every nook-&-cranny of the Massey Theatre stage are still a thrill, as was the diminutive Jericho Theatre stage ebullience of Cats seen earlier this year or the even diminutive-er production of Bonnie & Clyde The Musical at Commercial Drive's Havana stage last month. 

Said it before, will say it again : Valerie Easton has an utterly unwavering eye and ear and touch for cadence, rhythm, choreographic interplay and timing whether she's doing incidental dance routines as part of a show or whole productions. 

You like big-stage music song-&-dance? Only through next Saturday to queue up and get mesmerized by this thrilling piece of work by all involved. This is entertainment writ large!

Particulars : Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock.  Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.  Original New York Stage Director & Choreographer Jerome Robbins.  Original production by Hal Prince.  Based on original stories in Yiddish [1895 - 1905] by Sholem Aleichem.  At Massey Theatre, 8th Avenue @ 8th Street, New Westminster.  Run-time 175 minutes including intermission.  On until April 23rd.  Schedule information & tickets via RCMT  or by phoning 604.521.5050.

Production team :  Direction & Choreography Valerie Easton.  Musical Direction James Bryson.  Producer Chelsea Carlson.  Technical Director & Head Carpenter Don Parman.  Set Designer Brian Ball.  Costume Designer / Costumer Christina Sinosich.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Sound Designer Tim Lang.  Designer, Specialty Costume Pieces & Masks Patrice Godin.  Associate Producer Allen Dominguez. Stage Manager Ingrid Turk.  Assistant Stage Manager Samantha Paras.  Assistant Stage Manager Gerri Torres.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronda Yuen. Rehearsal Pianist Patrick Ray. Cultural Consultant Naomi Taussig. 

Principal performers :  Jonathan Bruce (Lazar Wolf).  Maia Hoile (Shpritze).  Warren Kimmel (Tevye). Arta Negahpai (Bielke).  Kerry O'Donovan (Motel). Jennifer Poole (Golde). Fenika Schofel (Hodel).  William Tippery (Fyedka).  Julia Ullrich (Chava).  Zach Wolfman (Perchick).  Natasha Zacher (Tzeitel).  Sylvia Zaradic (Yente).

Ensemble performers : Colleen Byberg.  Rachael Carlson.  Emma Ciprian.  John Cousins.  Lucas Crandall.  Darian Grant.  Tiffany Hambrook.  Jacquollyne Keath.  Kyle Oliver.  Erin Palm.  Matt Ramer.  Owen Scott.  Peter Stainton.  Michael Stusiak.  Tosh Sutherland.  Adam Turpin.  Jacob Wolstencroft.  Kaitlin Yott.  

Orchestra :  Katie Stewart. Kevin McDonnell. Jennifer Vance. Steve Prestage. Marni Johnson. Malcom Francis. Tom Walker. Peter Serravalle. Steve Torok. Paul Chan. Eva Ying. Mary Grace del Rosario. Lia Wolfe. Janice Webster. Ross Halliday. Monica Sumulong. Kevin Woo. Andrea Flello. Kerry Fraser. Patrick Ray.  


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