Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: (Stratford) Fiddler on the Roof

Jewelle Blackman (top) with Kate Henning (bottom centre) and company (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Tradition Abounds!
This Fiddler may play it safe, but the effect is powerful
by Stuart Munro and Dave Ross

Stratford’s first musical offering of the season is Bock and Harnick’s perennial classic, Fiddler on the Roof. This long-time favourite has been praised for its ability to speak to peoples from all backgrounds and histories; its appeal is that one doesn’t have to be Jewish to understand the plight of Tevye and his family – through him, we all become Jewish for the night and learn what it feels like to be marginalized and persecuted for no reason.

Stuart Munro: I want to start this off by saying I love this show. Fiddler is easily in my top five, all-time favourite musicals. And things last night started off well enough. The Festival Theatre stage has been transformed into two distinct locales – the greys of Anatevka in the world below, and the bright colours of the Chagall-inspired Heaven above (the title of the musical comes from a Marc Chagall painting called “The Green Violinist”). The opening number, “Tradition,” was exciting and set the tone for what should’ve been an equally exciting show. But somewhere along the way, things started to fall a little flat. And though I expect people will disagree with me strongly on this, the weak link in this production is Scott Wentworth as Tevye. Too often he played the comedy of the text, not the drama (the script is funny already, it doesn’t need help!), and he seemed to be in a tremendous rush. I just wanted him to slow down and take his time with the words. A lot of what Wentworth does works very well, but his principle motivations seemed misguided.

Dave Ross: I have to agree completely. The script is funny, but Wentworth’s identical delivery of every joke or punchline served to make the humour unnecessarily obvious to the audience. I was able to mostly dismiss this until the end of Act II, when he put on a satirical sing-song voice to mimic the parting words of one of his daughters, which completely destroyed what should have been a powerful and tender moment. It was disappointing and made me angry, all at once. Additionally, whenever Tevye addresses God, he addresses the same spot in the catwalks every time, despite having this magnificent Heaven directly above his head. The little praise I have for Wentworth was that he didn’t turn Tevye into an unfortunate stereotype or caricature, as can happen with characters such as this. There are very good performances in this show, and I for one was blown away by Kate Hennig as Golde. I’ve seen Hennig in a handful of productions now (including Stratford’s Romeo and Juliet) and she is a phenomenal performer.

SM: I couldn’t praise Kate Hennig more. Golde could easily become a farce of a character, but in Hennig’s capable hands, she becomes a fully realized woman and mother who, despite some views that we may consider antiquated now, has a clear and tender love for her daughters and husband. She and Wentworth broke my heart during Act II’s “Do you love me?” There are many other strong performances: Keely Hutton as Chava was the one daughter that clearly stood out for me, and Mike Nadajewski as Perchik managed to transform “Now I have everything” (a bit of a throw-away number) into a real highlight. Likewise André Morin as Motel really won me over as the night went on. The biggest highlight of this production are the dances, and director/choreographer Donna Feore has assembled an astounding group to perform her and Jerome Robbins’s original choreography. The wedding dance/bottle dance is easily my favourite part of the show, and it was performed here with flair and style. Her decisions as director, while never flawed, come off as, perhaps, a bit safe.

DR: While the production does seem safe in places, its energy is near-boundless, and the overall effect quite good. Particularly during Act I, when everything seems fine, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something more was happening, something unpleasant. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is very apparent during “The Dream,” which has heavily farcical elements, but the design team adds a sinister tone to this number in its design, using masks (heavily inspired by Chagall) that were simultaneously beautiful and grotesque. This tension between comedy and drama is excruciating in its execution. The warmth and precision of the ensemble, particularly during “Tradition” and “Sunrise, Sunset” is also worth noting. You have frequently spoken to me of being able to bathe in music, and this is exactly what the ensemble has achieved.

SM: I want to be very clear here: Fiddler on the Roof is an extraordinarily well-crafted show, and despite some of my misgivings and some disappointments with this production, the evening is still highly charged and emotional – I cried no fewer than five times over the course of the three hours (which flew by at such a rapid pace that I could barely believe it was 11pm when the show ended) – a credit not only to the writing talents of Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, but to the phenomenal group of actors here as well. This is an extraordinarily strong company who perform this show with love and care. Where the direction fails them, the material more than makes up for it.

Stratford’s Fiddler on the Roof runs until October 20 October 27 at the Festival Theatre
Also see, video: The bottle dance from Stratford's Fiddler


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It is unfortunate that you posted the picture of Jewelle Blackman, misspelled her name and yet did not even speak about her monumental performance. She was not only vocally moving, she was suspended by cables and yet appeared to be floating. There are Olympic athletes that still sway while in the air.

  3. Spelling has been corrected. Thank you for pointing this out.


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