Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Broadway Longevity Without Flashy Kitsch

The strange case of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Fiddler On The Roof has instant name recognition. It’s one of the few American musicals that nearly everyone can visualize at the slightest mention of the name. The 47-year-old musical continues to leave an indelible impression on popular consciousness. In town this week, the touring Broadway production is likely one of presumed attendance for some in the area—the response to its arrival in town being more of an autonomic response to its proximity than an actual conscious decision to go and see a show.

Going to see a show that’s been around for as long as Fiddler has is kind of an experience by virtue of its longevity. More so than merely being something of a traveling museum piece, the show has a kind of timeless vitality about it that leaves one kind of impressed that a show with minimal production design could be as successful as it is. There’s a whole lot of rugged earth tone moving about onstage under some fairly satisfactory lighting, but production isn’t what draws people to the show. Yes, the show illustrates an important part of Jewish cultural heritage, and there is going  to be a draw to see the show because of that, but there’s a universality about the piece that goes beyond cultural specifics to speak to basic cultural elements that always seem to be inhabiting any familial community of people.

It’s a very small, tight-knit community living in Tsarist Russia at the dawn of a new century. Drawn from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the people inhabiting the musical are a microcosm of society with dreams and passions that speak to dreams and passions at the heart of any society. That the cast of characters are able to do this without seeming bland, lifeless and generic is probably a good portion of what makes the musical so enduring. The touring Broadway production does a pretty good job of bringing that microcosm to the stage.

As strange as it is to see people shelling out the kind of money people do to see a touring Broadway show, it’s even a bit stranger to see this happening with Fiddler . . . most probably because the cast itself doesn’t seem as precise and polished as touring shows usually are. You don’t go to a touring Broadway show to see a live performance—you go to see a big, soulless machine pumping out a very precisely-choreographed piece of stagecraft with huge production value. You don’t really get that with Fiddler. It ends up feeling like a production that could’ve been done by nearly any theatre company in town . . . a cast with talent levels as mixed and varied as this don’t immediately strike one as being staggeringly brilliant. . . but there’s a kind of lived-in personality about the ensemble that feels perfrectly at home in set and costuming that feel like they just walked off the street a little over one hundred years ago.

The marketing does a really good job of picking-up on the single best reason for going to see Fiddler—John Preece. Preece plays Tevye—a milkman straddling the traditions of the old world and the rapidly changing world of the new generation that is brilliantly reflected in his daughters. The central unifying character anchoring-in the ensemble, Tevye is a crucial character. We see the world through his eyes. Preece walks through the role with a casual, earthy grace. His performance is every bit as lived-in as the rest of the production. That’s no accident—Preece has been appeared onstage in the show over 3,000 times—more than half of those in the role of Tevye. Do the math on a three hour show and that’s something like 4,500 hours being Teevye onstage.

I had the opportunity to see the show in the second row. I have no idea how well the orgnic subtlty of Preece’s performance stretches, but itf you’re going to see this show you really should see it close enough to see Preece live this character. One rarely gets an opportunity to see an actor play a character he’s this familiar with. All the hours onstage in performance and rehearsal and Preece still has a sparkle in his eye. The Marcus Center is a big place. As charming a guy as he is, that sparkle can’t  be all that visible for 90% of the audience.

The touring Broadway Across America production of Fiddler on the Roof  runs now through June 19th at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For ticket reservations, call 414-273-7206.

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