Children's Theater of Madison ends its 2013-14 season with a fine production of the musical Fiddler on the Roof (through May 11 at Overture Center's Playhouse), the beloved musical by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, which debuted on Broadway 50 years ago.
Based on short stories by Sholom Aleichem, the play focuses on Tevye, a poor milkman in Tsarist Russia, eking out a meager existence for himself, his wife, and his five daughters at the turn of the 20th century. A good-natured husband, father, and philosopher, he keeps his precarious life in balance "like a fiddler on the roof," holding tight to his Jewish faith, his community, and his traditions, even as news of ethnic violence enters his little town and modern ideas challenge his old-fashioned ways.
Although Brian Mani is best known for playing classical parts at American Players Theatre, he seems right at home as Tevye, He leads the ensemble, verbally spars with his wife Golde (a scowling Amy Welk), dotes on his daughters, and shows his sense of humor when explaining his faith to the audience or conversing with God about his lame horse. In the signature song "If I Were a Rich Man," Mani's musings about a life of ease play like a lovely daydream. With a pleasant, if not overly strong singing voice, he celebrates, prays, questions, and mourns in familiar melodies such as "Tradition," and "Sunrise, Sunset."
Likewise, Stuart Mott fills his role of Perchik with the passionate idealism and revolutionary yearnings of a scholar. As Hodel, Fiorella Fernandez sings "Far from the Home I Love," with haunting beauty before leaving to join Perchik in Siberia.
Special kudos also go to Donovan Armbruster as the jilted bridegroom, the butcher Lazar Wolf; Mari Borowski (Grandma Tzeitel) and Meghan Randolf (Fruma-Sarah) for their strong soprano solos and wonderfully spooky turns as ghosts in the well-choreographed dream sequence; and to Shawn Goodman Jones for literally bringing the show to a halt as the Russian tenor during the celebratory "To Life! (L’Chaim!)" These performances in small but vital roles balanced out some other, less successful efforts of actors in secondary characters.
In Steve Barnes' simple and evocative set, the small Russian town of Anatevka is represented by weathered wooden walls that dominate the back of the stage. The boards are printed with a stylized black engraving of the Russian village, Tevye's home, and the bleak, surrounding landscape. Simple additions of a rough-hewn fence, benches, and tables complete many scenes, allowing the audience to focus primarily on the people that add color to this drab little village.
Costumes for the nearly three dozen cast members, by Sarah Strange, ranged from iconic to mismatched. While most of the villagers are dressed in black and brown, Hodel wears an odd pastel pink blouse and blue floral skirt. The enigmatic fiddler (Jason Hurwitz) plays his violin from the balcony in a comically patched coat and shabby hat that look more appropriate for a circus act than a shtetl.
The original, iconic choreography created by Jerome Robbins was reproduced well by Molly Rhode and carried out ably by the cast. The antithesis of many Broadway musicals, it features folk dances instead of kick-lines; a highlight of the production was the traditional "bottle dance," performed with precision at Tzeitel's wedding.
Although the overall production was satisfying, the cast seemed a bit tentative on opening night, with musicians and vocalists occasionally searching for notes and tempos. Also, while the lighthearted moments were easily achieved, many of the more poignant scenes stopped short of their full emotional impact.
At two hours and fifty minutes, including the intermission, the show may be too long for some children who regularly see CTM's plays. (It is recommended for attendees ages 8 and older.) But for a general audience, this is a good introduction to a great musical.