CHESTERTOWN — “Fiddler on the Roof,” now playing at Church Hill Theatre, is one of the most popular of all Broadway musicals. Directed by Sylvia Maloney, the CHT production gives a good idea why the show has made such a strong impact.
Originally produced in 1964, “Fiddler” is based on stories of the village life of Russian Jews written in the early 1900s by the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. The show features music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein. While several other dramatizations of Aleichem’s work preceded it, “Fiddler” hit the jackpot.
The original production, starring Zero Mostel, ran for more than 3,000 performances on Broadway, a record at the time, and won nine Tony Awards. The show went on to become a highly successful 1971 film, and has been revived many times over its 52-year history. It is a popular choice for community theater and school productions, including one a few years back at Queen Anne’s County High School.
Set in the tiny Russian Jewish village of Anatevka in 1905, “Fiddler” revolves around the community’s milkman, Tevye, and his attempts to keep tradition alive in a changing world. Tevye and his wife Golde are especially concerned with the future of their five daughters, the oldest of whom are of marriageable age.
Much of the plot revolves around the parents’ desire to see their daughters happily wed — a desire that creates crisis after crisis as each of the daughters finds a match on her own. Tevye finds his faith in tradition challenged more by each of the daughters, whose suitors are progressively more “unsuitable” to his standards.
And the daughters’ choices create ripples in the entire village, as they defy the time-honored system in which Yente, the village matchmaker, arranges weddings and children dutifully accept their parents’ wishes.
Other change is coming to the village. Motel, the tailor who marries Tevye’s oldest daughter Tzeitel, dreams of owning a sewing machine. Perchik, a student from Kiev who teaches Tevye’s daughters, is a radical who challenges the tsar’s oppressive regime. And the Russian authorities, whose rule has generally been light, are beginning to take a much harsher role in Anatevka. All this throws the village life into increasing ferment — and makes Tevye’s faith in tradition even harder to hold onto.
The musical’s themes of tolerance and dealing with change strike close to home at a time when religious and social intolerance seem to be hardening. Tevye’s response to the world he finds himself in isn’t always wise — but we can learn from watching him, and feeling what he feels. It’s good to have plays that explore these big issues.
As with any great musical, “Fiddler” has its share of memorable songs — three of which come at the very beginning. The opening number, “Tradition,” sung by the whole cast, sets the tone for the entire play. “Matchmaker,” sung by Tevye’s daughters, is an amusing look at the young women’s role in a world of arranged marriages. And “If I Were a Rich Man,” Tevye’s great number, is a wonderful bit of characterization.
Not all the songs are as memorable as those three, but the score as a whole nicely captures the feeling of the traditional music of Eastern European Jews.
Herb Ziegler plays Tevye with real passion, bringing out the character’s warm humor and his deep concern for his family and his religion. Ziegler captures the character’s joy and sorrows, his introspection and exuberance, with equal felicity. And he delivers “If I Were a Rich Man” with infectious zest. Ziegler has a long track record of solid performances at Church Hill, but this has to be the topper. It is hard to imagine anyone better suited to the role.
Debra Ebersole, another CHT veteran, is also well cast as Golde, Tevye’s wife. Her singing voice is always an asset, especially on “Sunrise, Sunset.”
Kristi McNiece, Becca Van Aken, Grace McCreary, Maya McGrory, and Lindsay McCowan are cast as Tevye’s daughters. The first three have bigger parts, as their choice of husbands drives much of the plot. A well-cast ensemble — each nicely brings out her character’s individual sensibility.
John Beck turns in a good performance as Lazar Wolf, the rich butcher whose plan to marry Tzeitel is frustrated when she chooses another. His big scene where he gets Tevye to agree to the marriage over drinks is well played.
Mark Weining plays Motel, the tailor. He does a fine job of projecting the character’s ambition. His enthusiasm when the longed-for sewing machine finally arrives is a highlight of the second act.
There are too many other cast members, including a number of CHT regulars, to give individual credit. Matt Folker is well cast as Perchik, the radical student who woos Tevye’s daughter Hodel. Kathy Jones is amusing as Yente, the matchmaker. Jean Leverage has a brief but effective part in a dream sequence as Golde’s grandmother. And Cavin Moore looks just right as the fiddler.
Maloney said after the Sunday performance that the open set gave her the opportunity to show the village of Anatevka that surrounds Tevye and his family. In almost every scene, something is going on in the background, reminding us how the main plot is but one strand in the life of the community.
The staging also allows for very quick scene changes, with a piece or two of furniture moved into place by the actors. It’s a nice way to eliminate the dead space between scenes that sometimes slows the pace of musicals.
There were a few intonation problems in the show, both in the orchestra and in the vocals. One can understand how a singer could have problems staying on pitch when the accompaniment is occasionally unclear. For whatever reason, the problems at the performance I saw seemed to increase in the second act — but you’ll definitely leave the theater humming the tunes.
On the other hand, the dance scenes, choreographed by Moore, were a real strength of the production. Robert Branning, Elliot Morotti and Bryce Sullivan are particularly good in their scene as Cossack dancers. Getting solid dance performances from an amateur cast isn’t always easy, but this production shows what can happen when it comes together.
“Fiddler” will be playing though Sunday, June 26. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students. Theater members receive a discount.
The Sunday matinee I saw had a full house —– there were very few empty seats visible. Given the large cast and the popularity of “Fiddler,” calling ahead for reservations would seem a particularly good idea — it’s a chance to see one of the classic musicals in an excellent performance, right in our backyard. It would be a shame to miss it.
For reservations, call 410-556-6003 or visit www.churchhilltheatre.org.Replace this text with page copy.