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By Daniel Skora
Perhaps no Broadway musical that has come to be regarded as a classic is as richly textured as "Fiddler on the Roof." First and foremost among its various triumphs is its heartwarming story. Tevye is an Hasidic Jew living in Russia at the turn of the century. He is a simple man, delivering milk and cheese from his horse-drawn cart to the villagers of Anatevka. He talks to God often, partly because solidarity with his Creator is an essential tenet of his faith, but mostly because, unlike the conversations between him and his wife, God chooses not to talk back.
Tevye is a man steeped in tradition. It is this tradition that allows him to be comfortable with the idea of a matchmaker choosing husbands for his daughters. That is how it's always been done, he reasons, and that is the way it should continue to be.
But Anatevka is not exempt from the encroachment of modern times. A strange notion of something called love is infecting the young of the village, and his three eldest daughters are not immune. Rather quickly, Tevye is compelled to choose between the traditions that he values so highly, and the affections of his beloved daughters.
When "Fiddler" opened on Broadway in 1964, it became an immediate success. It captured Tony Awards in nine of 10 nominated categories, including Best Musical, and held the record for longest running musical for nearly a decade. Its pedigree is fabled. The tale it told was based upon the stories of famed Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem. Its title derived from a painting by Marc Chagall, whose art served to influence the show's set design. And the original Broadway production was directed and choreographed by the renowned Jerome Robbins.
The show's songs were no mere window dressing for the storyline, but highlighted themes that were an integral part of Jewish culture. The first three numbers in the show, "Tradition," "Matchmaker," and "If I Were a Rich Man," went on to become hits independent of the musical itself. The dance numbers were derivative of movements long a part of Jewish history. And as if the endearing story of Tevye and his trials and tribulations were not enough to realize a show, he, his family and the entire village of Anatevka found themselves immersed in the turmoil of history when the Russian Tsar decrees the expulsion of Jews from the country.
The venerable history of "Fiddler on the Roof" continues with the current production at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter. Director and choreographer Barbara F. Cullen and the entire Encore cast and crew have put together an outstanding show that's spirited and gratifying.
Anchoring the spectacular production is Stephen West in the role of Tevye. West combines a vibrant baritone with his considerable acting skills in creating one of the most beloved characters ever to come out of a Broadway musical. His Tevye is colorful, lovable and earthy, and his take on the song "If I Were a Rich Man" is smooth and nuanced and one of the show's many highlights.
West is supported by more than a score of enthused and talented cast members. Veterans provide a solid foundation: Marlene Inman-Reilly (Golde); Judy Dery (Yente); and Tim Brayman (Lazar Wolf). The up-and-comers expend their best in attempting to keep pace: Katherine Kujala, Clare Lauer, and Hannah Clague as Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, (Tevye's three oldest daughters); John Hummel, Sebastian Gerstner and Jesse Barfield as Motel, Perchik and Fyedka, (the daughters' suitors). Emily Slomovits sets the mood and provides musical interludes as the Fiddler.
Everything about the Encore production is impressive, from Sharon Larkey Urick's realistic period costumes to Toni Auletti's functional and exhilarating set. The Encore's stage is large enough to easily accommodate the several production numbers and the comings and goings of Tevye's milk cart. The "Tradition" number, which opens the show, has always been one of the most rousing of any Broadway musical, and the Encore's rendition provides a vibrant sendoff to everything that follows.
Though the show runs nearly three hours, it never falters. Each and every moment is filled with theatrics. Scene changes are camouflaged by music from the fiddler or interludes from the high-stepping dancers. The show features a couple of highly visual scenes, one where some of the men at the wedding celebration of Tzeitel and Motel dance with wine bottles balancing on their top hats, another where an enormous puppet is used to illustrate a dream sequence. Musical direction of the four-piece group is courtesy of Cheryl Van Duzen.
Encore's production of "Fiddler on the Roof" is a joyous celebration of musical theater at its best. It's fun, it's inspirational, it's as relevant today as it was when it first took to a Broadway stage almost 50 years ago. And it's guaranteed that some of the enormous amounts of love and enthusiasm that went into the making of this show will find a place in your heart.
SHOW DETAILS: "Fiddler on the Roof" runs through Aug. 12. Tickets are available by phone (734-268-6200) or online (www.theencoretheatre.org). The theater is located at 3126 Broad St. in the historic village of Dexter. Take I-94 west and exit at Baker St.
Reprinted with permission of the New Monitor, July 19, 2012
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