Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Fiddler on the Roof" at Moonlight Stage Productions

An Incredibly Fine “Fiddler”:
Kathy Brombacher’s swan song staging is a stunning feast for the eyes and ears

 By Donnie Matsuda

David Ellenstein as Tevye (foreground) in "Fiddler on the Roof."  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Moonlight Artistic Director Kathy Brombacher understandably has a special place in her heart for the timeless and tuneful musical theatre classic, Fiddler on the Roof.  After all, it was the very first full-scale musical she ever directed as a student at the University of Redlands (many moons ago), and now, in a full-circle moment that only the mystical theatre gods can dictate, she once again returns to the venerable musical as her final show before stepping down as head honcho of the Vista-based theatre company after 32 years of outstanding leadership.  No doubt, it is a very important musical for her, and this time around, she wants to make sure it is done right, with every note, every step, and every aspect of the beautiful, intimate Russian village of Anatevka perfectly in place. 

Simply put, her careful attention to detail mostly pays off here and her current staging of Fiddler on the Roof – both visually and vocally stunning - is a “grand finale” that she can be proud of.  Working with a top-notch creative team, which includes veteran Moonlight choreographer Carlos Mendoza (who borrows judiciously from Jerome Robbins’ original dance sequences) and veteran Moonlight Musical Director Elan McMahan (who elicits a large and lush sound from her 11-piece orchestra), Brombacher does what she can to keep the three hour long musical moving along at a brisk pace while still paying due homage to the quirky characters and hummable musical numbers we all know and love.   

L-R: Aubrey Elson as Chava, Alexis Grenier as Tzeitel, and Charlene Koepf as Hodel.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
While her vision for this production is more muted than any I’ve ever seen, it appears that it is her intent to strip away the theatrical flourishes and instead focus on the real characters and the everyday situations at the heart of the piece.  Instead of playing up the acerbic Jewish wit written into the piece, her cast delivers the many punch lines with a naturalistic tendency that causes the humor in the piece to fall consistently flat.  But despite her watered-down storytelling, one thing is for sure: Brombacher knows her space well and manages to create some incredibly stunning and evocative pictures using her large 39-member cast and a number of rustic set pieces (the compact and cozy set is rented from Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre and fits well on the sprawling amphitheatre stage) handsomely lit by Jean-Yves Tessier. 

Victoria Strong as Golde and David Ellenstein as Tevye.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Based on a collection of stories by Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem, the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof combines the talents of three writers – Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) – and holds the distinction of being Broadway’s fifteenth longest-running show in history.  The original Broadway production was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning nine including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, and Best Direction, and spawned four Broadway revivals as well as a successful 1971 film adaptation.  It has enjoyed enduring international popularity largely thanks to its universal appeal and it has been performed in more than 15 languages, in over 30 countries.

At the heart of the story is dairyman Tevye, his wife Golde, and his five daughters who all struggle to keep their traditions alive and their sanity in check amidst the caustic winds of change that threaten to tear their family apart.  But despite the ongoing persecution by the Tsarist regime, the imminent threat of revolution, and the concern that his daughters are falling in love and falling out of their faith, Tevye manages to maintain grounded as he deals with each new twist of fate with his characteristic warmth, humor, and humanity.

The "Fiddler on the Roof" Company.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
Without a doubt, it takes a whole lot of chutzpah for any actor to step into the workboots of America’s most iconic Jewish milkman and David Ellenstein (esteemed Artistic Director of the Solana Beach-based North Coast REP Theatre) is more than up to the task.  While his singing and dancing are a bit rusty here, he nonetheless manages to captivate the audience with his authentic charm and his no-nonsense, down-to-earth sensibility.  As his wife Golde, Victoria Strong simply shines.  She’s a true triple threat, boasts a magnetic presence on stage, and brings a lighter and more loveable touch to a role that’s normally played with a nagging edge.  Together, Ellenstein and Strong are unusually laid back (certainly not cut from the same cloth as most Jewish parents) and frequently at odds with their traditional roles as written in Stein’s banter-filled book and Harnick’s prickly score.  But, then again, this is a musical about breaking with tradition and forging new beginnings, right?  

Even the girls playing the couple’s eldest three daughters tend too much toward the vanilla.  They are exceptionally strong singers, however, and they are Alexis Grenier as Tzeitel, Charlene Koepf as Hodel, and Aubrey Elson as Chava.  And among their men (intended or otherwise), Timothy J. Allen is a ball of nervous energy as the mousy, timid tailor Motel, Jason Webb is charismatic as the young revolutionary Perchik, and Eric Hellmers is both gentle and graceful as the Russian suitor Fyedka.     

The "Fiddler on the Roof" Company.  Photo by Ken Jacques.
There are also some fine comic turns by Susan E. V. Boland as matchmaker Yente, Ralph Johnson as town bookseller Avram, Jamie Snyder as the butcher Lazar Wolf, and Danny Campbell as the Rabbi.  And there is even a children’s cast of eight – Noah Baird, Will Ellenstein, Hayden Kerzie, Hourie Klijian, Shea Starrs, Skylar Starrs, Sloane Starrs, and Scarlett Strasberg - who are nicely worked into many of the group scenes and musical numbers.

All in all, it’s a lot to rein in with a musical of this magnitude, but Brombacher does an admirable job of making it all come together as seamlessly as she can.  With her Fiddler, there may be a few shortcomings to kvetch about and it may not be the most robust revival you’ve ever seen, but it does boast some strong performances, a number of picture-perfect moments, and serves as an appropriate “farewell” to one of the most legendary leaders in the Moonlight Stage family.

Things to know before you go: Fiddler on the Roof plays at Moonlight Stage Production’s Amphitheatre through August 11, 2012.  Running time is 3 hours with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15-$50.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (760) 724-2110 or visit www.moonlightstage.com.

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