2nd Star Productions Fiddler on the RoofBy Genie Baskir • Jun 4th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
2nd Star Productions
Bowie Playhouse, Bowie, MD
Through June 30th
2:30 with intermission
$20/$17 Seniors and Students
Reviewed June 2nd, 2012
MAZEL TOV!!! 2nd Star Productions has done the job. Finally, a community theatre production of Fiddler that does not take on the mien of a minstrel show with amateurs in Yidface hyperactively running ring around the rosey and trying to mask its ignorance of its subjects with loud and annoying stereotypes. The manifest research and dramaturgy on the part of Director Brian Douglas and his cast and crew brought this reviewer and her Very Smart Prince back in time to our own fathers, our own families having arrived here far later than 1905.
Your reviewer can aver right here and now that this is the first Fiddler in a long time that did not bring thoughts of Fidel Castro to mind; though Castro is, amusingly and ironically enough, a member of the tribe. The minor issues, which I’ll get to, mean nothing when Douglas has cast a group of characters that realistically fits together physically and vocally and who have taken very seriously the task of recreating a lost folkway whose abundant remnants are alive and well at the best all you can eat Chinese buffet in town.
The story action begins in 1905 in the fictional village of Anatevka in the multinational Pale of Settlement. In 1905 Anatevka is Russian. It wasn’t always Russian and the borders will change again after WWI. This is also the year Joel Russ emigrates from Russia to the Lower East Side in New York City. Why does this matter? Because it is Joel Russ who opens the iconic delicatessen on Houston Street that he leaves to his three daughters because he has no sons. The principals involved in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof were steady customers of Russ and Daughters and decided to create a show based on Joel’s life. They wrapped Joel and his three daughters into the Sholem Aleichem stories about Tevye and his five daughters and a Broadway legend was born. In fact, your reviewer was at Russ and Daughters two weeks ago and brought home a dozen knishes.
Sholem Aleichem, born Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, was known in Europe as the Jewish Mark Twain. His significance among Yiddish writers is somewhat grounded in his origins as a Galicianer Jew. The Galicianers were considered to be less literate and scholarly than the disdainful Northern Litvaks and Rabinovich’s elevation to the literary Mount Olympus exposed the uncomfortable internecine quarrels among the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe and jacked up the Southerners in their own self-regard. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, ever the universalist, returned the compliment by declaring himself the American Sholem Aleichem and the Galicianers were no longer taken to be the class clowns.
In 1905, another member of the tribe, Albert Einstein, with the assistance of his equally brilliant Gentile wife, Mileva Maric, published the Special Theory of Relativity. This is relevant to our story because Einstein created fire without flame; enabling still religious (Shomer Shabbos) Jews to have light, elevators and radio without kindling a flame and thus permitting those Jews to remove themselves from squalid tenements and build up into high rise buildings and a better standard of living; and affording us the legacies of the Anatevkaners which ultimately include full assimilation, feminism, desegregation, Ralph Lauren and Bob Dylan, whose grandparents also left Russia in 1905, among many others. So many, including Sholem Aleichem, emigrated from Eastern Europe and Russia because that was the year of the first Russian Revolution. Nicholas II was forced to abdicate absolute power for a constitutional monarchy and accept Russia’s first House of Representatives, the Duma. Nick retaliated in the easiest way possible, expulsion of his Jews who were seen to be the Marxists nipping at his heels. These are the new soon to be Soviet men that Perchik personifies when he appears in Anatevka. It is, in fact, 13 years later that a Jew named Yakov Urofsky will oversee Nicholas’execution and the murder of his children. Oy… this is not making us look so good. I hope Perchik wasn’t there.
Director Douglas, in his notes, explains his attachment to the show and expounds upon the aspect of faith; but he expounds on humanist faith making clear that he does understand the thesis of the book as most productions do not. This abstraction becomes clear at the end when some Anatevkaners want to stand and fight the Tsarist authorities instead of accepting expulsion as ordered by the local constable. It turns out that the Anatevkaners are observant, but they are not religious. What they see as tradition is really constraint. Even the Rebbe can’t justify either in liturgy or Halacha the traditions they are supposed to be upholding. When these people are cut loose from their bindings, both imposed and self-inflicted, the result is a flowering of culture, science and industry which ultimately says more about the United States than about these people themselves and that legacy is evinced by the secular principals who constructed this immortal musical. Douglas extends that legacy with his multi-racial casting, not only reflecting the multi-racial makeup of the Jewish people but confirming theatre’s universality.
Fred Nelson as Tevye capers onto the stage cutting loose like the Baal Shem Tov, acknowledging his friend on the roof. Yes!!!! This show does actually have a roof. Nelson’s Tevye is professorial in demeanor…more Simon Baron Cohen, less David Mamet. Nelson is not a booming baritone shouting out “TRADITION” like it’s some new, soft toilet paper or something; he is laid back and dulcet in his approach to song and invites audience affection for a vintage character. This Tevye makes no illusion of his authority. He has none. He’s talking and he knows God is not listening and he keeps breaking the traditions he claims to rely on and believe in because, in reality, Tevye’s faith is in himself. But he’s hedging his bets anyway. Nelson has impeccable comic timing, an incredibly flexible face and the ability to demonstrate real love at a distance. Nelson brings an original nuance to his characterization of Tevye with a subtext less Ricky Ricardo and more “Full House.” It works because Nelson is good and knows who his Tevye is. His Tevyeness is inside of him. Let’s give him a full five matzo balls for his Tevye.
Andrea Bush as Golde, Tevye’s wife, rushes into the action as a fearsome termagant and concludes the show like a piece of kugel, warm and soft and delicious. Bush has a marvelous voice and her Jewish mother persona never descended into type. Golde is uneducated, but not unlearned. Her superstitious dream interpretations are no less exacting than Sigmund Freud’s, a bacon-eating, Shabbos violating Yekher with a cigar. Bush is the real master of the house, but her charm lies in her affection for her lot and her ability to accept change. Five matzo balls for Bush.
Yente (Ruta Kidolis) is problematic because the intent of her character is to descend into stereotype. The character was written as such and Kidolis is charming as the town yenta striking fear into the hearts of all of the girls who don’t want to marry the hoary old goats looking for love a second or third time around. Kidolis does not have enough stage time but makes every second she’s on appealing because she is never patronizing in her portrayal of this stock Yiddische character. Five matzo balls for Kidolis. She is very funny.
Douglas’ production is superior from the curtain opening to its closing. His characters don’t stagnate, they grow. Even Lazar Wolf gets a new young bride and begins a new family. In fact, the whole set grows as the trees and the costumes change with the seasons. Bravo!! Director Douglas’ set design is clever and realistic; however, the small stage and large show made for difficult scene transitions which affected the flow of the narrative and added length to the total performance time. Only because the show itself is so good is this problem diminished. The important rituals of the door mezuzot and the manner in which the adults entered and left memorialized habits still observed by the assimilated descendants of our Anatevkaners. Douglas and his crew did their due diligence. The only unmitigated error is in the mens’ fancy coats. On Shabbos when Tevye cleaned up and changed clothes for the appearance of the bride (it’s a Shabbos thing) he should have been wearing a white kittle. The same with Motl for his wedding. Motl would have made the kittles….lol. The groom and the fathers would have and should have been in white kittles over the black coats. This error is so visible only in its relation to the dedicated study otherwise of the show. Jane B. Wingard’s costumes were proper and correct, except for the kittles…but ultimately that’s minor compared to everything else she did accomplish. I know costumers have to acquire stunt tsit tsit because it doesn’t look good to desecrate the real ones, but these were just too stunty looking.
Tzeitel (Erin Lorenz) begins the show as a dutiful and serious daughter, subordinate to her parents, and concludes the show as a woman with her own household going off in another direction from her parents and younger siblings. She is a mother now with her own child to nurture and raise and Lorenz effects the transition well. Her denial of her father’s deal with the butcher Lazar Wolf (Tim Sayles) for marriage is the first indication that 1905 will auger in the new 20th century for real. Stevie Mangum as Motl Kamzoil, the poor tailor, for whom Tzeitel renounces the original marriage contract is a bit too nebbishy…even for Motl. Nelson’s Tevye is not bombastic enough for such trepidation; but Mangum grows into his Motl as he becomes a real mensch. Mangum does okay with his big Motl song (“Miracle of Miracles”) but he is not passionate and Motl and Tzeitel are not moving enough while he’s singing. The same with Perchik (Alex Meyer-Stokes) and Hodel (Malarie Novotny); while the stage at Bowie Playhouse is too small for the large production, it becomes too big because the romantic boys and girls are not dancing during their songs. Alex Meyer-Stokes looks ready to hoof it and gambol about the stage, wearing dance sneakers, as he sings his big Perchik song (“Now I Have Everything”) and he meanders around like a puppy looking for spot to make a sissy. But both couples are sweet and sympathetic and were cast well. The boys had some tsuris hitting their high notes, but a little coaching will solve that nisht geferlach. Novotny has a clear and strong voice and makes the most of the opportunities playing this role affords her. She even gets her own Hodel song (“Far From the Home I Love”) and acquits herself well.
Poor Chava (Samantha Yangilmau) and Fyedka (Zac Fadler) don’t get their own song. Maybe it’s because Fyedka is not Jewish. Chava runs off with Fyedka and marries him in a church. Golde herself goes to the church and confirms the dreadful news with the Russian priest. Oy vey ist mir. That’s some knish in Tevye’s tuches and he is not sitting down for this. At least not until the end when he sort of takes Chava back because Tevye…and Golde…cannot conform to a so-called tradition that would demand the disavowal of a child. Nelson’s descent from broad comedy into heartbreak is moving and Golde’s only concession to Tevye’s bluster is his disavowal of Chava. Bush is woeful and her heartbreak is palpable. Yangilmau offers us the benefit of nontraditional casting which gives further richness to the show and Fadler looks adorable enough to not be a thug like his former friends. They make a cute couple.
Nu, what about the dancing? The music? The big production numbers? Well, this show gives ’em to us! Tevye’s fake nightmare resurrecting the long dead Grandma Tzeitel (Cheramie Julianne Jackson) and the equally dead Fruma Sarah (Samantha Feikema), the butcher’s first wife, is the most original and clever rendition short of a professional stage and accomplished without a flying machine. The Very Smart Prince is still qvelling over this number. The masterful lighting and the crackerjack special effects costuming deserve an award…any award…it doesn’t matter… this is a gantzeh megillah! The wedding…not so much. The wedding was very nice and we are very happy for the couple, but the men and women are dancing together…the whole ring around the rosey dance…and then Perchik puts up the mehitzah and the boys and the girls are separated after they just did the ring around the rosey. By the time Perchik asks Hodel to dance with him the whole anticipation of Sodom and Gemorrah and holy retribution is passed. What an antoyshung….here we are waiting for the sky to open and for the wedding to descend into a debauched orgy of men in beards and funny hats lusting after girls in schmattes while the women scream for cake and Nicholas Kirkwood shoes…and the big wedding dance before the mehitza shows up just cooks that tsimmes. Oh…on further reflection, maybe the feather flying pogrom is the chastisement for the coed dancing. Maybe the choreographer (Christine Asero) got so carried away with happy Jewish dancing and all of the commotion she forgot about the boy girl separation business. Otherwise, she got the dancing right with all of the Russian and Jewish combinations; although truth be told they are mostly the same. Everyone does a bottle dance now. That seems to be the style, but the bottles are very obviously pasted onto the hats. The glue should be black like the hats to keep us guessing. The music was very good under Joe Biddle’s direction and this orchestra seemed to understand the giddiness of Klezmerim; although the Very Smart Prince noticed some ragged edges on some of the uptakes. Again nisht geferlach.
The bar scene where Tevye sells Tzeitel to Lazar Wolf had great chemistry among the players. There could have been more cast in the number but the initial constraint between the Jews and the Russians and the Slivovitz inspired conviviality of all of the men made for a great production number (“L’chaim”). All that dancing, all that drinking…such nachas. You should go see this.
None of this comes together without flawless technical direction and the show’s success is grounded in a superior production crew. Lighting (Garrett R. Hyde) advanced the comedy and set the tone of the proceedings. Mazel tov, Garrett!
Altogether 2nd Star Productions’ Fiddler on the Roof is a fine rendition of a tough musical that avoids descent into minstrelsy and makes good on its offer of gorgeous entertainment. Stop by Wegman’s for some of their Chinese buffet, have a little snack before the house opens, have a little more nosh at intermission and then go for some coffee and cake after the show. Talk and argue a little bit while you’re at it. That is the legacy of Sholem Aleichem and his characters and we’re still all having a great time.
Rivke Gittel bat Izio vay Manya, wife of Shemai Zalman ben Chaim Manis vay Chaya
Fiddler on the Roof will always hold special meaning for me. As a teenager in Philadelphia, I earned my first paycheck as an actor in a production of this show that ran eight performances a week for six months. After a three-month break, that production was moved to a different theatre and ran for yet another six months. As such, I felt uniquely qualified to direct this show, but one should never underestimate the collaborative effort that is The Theatre. The cast, choreographer, designers, technicians and musicians all brought their own distinctive styles to the production, resulting in a living, breathing version of Anatevka that will never appear anywhere but on the 2nd Star stage. It is a daunting task to bring such a well-known and well-loved musical to life. It was out goal to not only meet the audience’s expectation, but to also bring you something that you’ve never seen before. The show is about faith, yes, but Fiddler is timeless because there are other themes that can be found, too. We discovered that some of the strongest characters are the women, that love can be a powerful and motivating force, and that people can overcome their differences when nations and religions apparently cannot. As we rehearsed the show, we worked together as a team toward a single purpose, while each of us had faith in ourselves as individuals. Perhaps the lesson we learned is the same one Tevye does, that we can accept, live and work with others without losing our own beliefs in the process.
Photos by Nathan Jackson
- Tevye: Fred Nelson
- Lazar Wolf: Tim Sayles
- Yente: Ruta Kidolis
- Perchik: Alex Meyer-Stokes
- Motl: Stevie Mangum
- Chava: Samantha Yangilmau
- Golde: Andrea Bush
- Tzeitel: Erin Lorenz
- Hodel: Malarie Novotny
- Constable: Dave O’Brien
- Fyedka: Zac Fadler
- Fruma Sarah/Mama: Samantha Feikema
- Grandma Tzeitel/Mama: Cheramie Julianne Jackson
- Mendel: Eric Crouse
- Rabbi: Fred Hahn
- Shprintze: Samantha Garner
- Bielke: Mia Lulli
- Mordcha: Gene Valendo
- Nachum: J.D. Wilson
- Shaindel: Mary K. Retort-George
- Fiddler: Michael Mathes
- Sasha: Josua “dax” Hampton
- Avram: Fred Roskind
- Boris: Jeffrey Thompson
- Russian Dancer: Vivian Wingard
- Rifka: Pat Browning
- Miraleh: Nora Biddle
- Svetlana: Emily Freeman
- Natasha: Genevieve Ethridge
- Ensemble: Brianna Bradley, Laurie Brown. Rebecca Feibel, Amy Homewood, Creedance Hubert Jackson, Tonya Mayo, Trent Murphy, Pam Shilling, CeCe Shilling, Noah Wingard
- Director: Brian Douglas
- Assistant Director: Christine Asero
- Producer/Scenic Design/Costumes: Jane B. Wingard
- Overall Production: Jane B. Wingard, Joanne D. Wilson
- Music Direction: Joe Biddle
- Assistant Music Director: Steve Hudgins
- Choreography: Christine Asero
- Combat Choreography: Ruta Kidolis
- Dance Captain: Vivian Wingard
- Stage Manager/Properties: Joanne D. Wilson
- Set Design: Brian Douglas
- Lighting/Sound Design: Garrett R. Hyde
Disclaimer: 2nd Star Productions provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8152.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.