Few would argue that when it comes to timeless musicals with a universal message, “Fiddler on The Roof” is near the top of the list. Now playing at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through May 7 at the Tarkington Theatre at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, the production opened Friday. This writer attended Saturday’s performance.
“Tevye and his Daughters” and other tales by Shalom Aleichem are the basis for the musical with a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. It premiered on Broadway in 1964. The musical tells the story of Tevye, an impoverished milkman who is forced to reconcile his deeply held faith and cultural traditions with the wishes of three strong- willed daughters who desire to follow their hearts. Filled with sentiment, the musical is set against the backdrop of an oppressive regime and acute antisemitism in 1905 Tzarist Russia.
Of the numerous professional, community and educational productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” seen by this reviewer over the past 30 years, this Civic production, masterfully directed by Michael Lasley, is among the finest. And as far as community theater productions go, this one is simply unparallelled.
Thanks to a fertile Indy talent pool and good instincts, the Civic team has a knack for astute casting. And if there was anybody born to play a role, it would be Tobin Strader who is thoroughly convincing as the self-deprecating, pious, loving but also misogynistic dairyman Tevye. Tall in stature and blessed with an appealing bass baritone voice, the charismatic Strader showed comic expertise and delighted in “If I Were a Rich Man.” In contrast he was also deeply effective in his heartrending rendition of “Chavaleh” which Tevye sings as he mourns the daughter he has rejected for marrying outside her faith.
Showing chemistry with Strader as his long suffering wife Golde, was seasoned actor Marni Lemons who nicely captured her spunky character’s matriarchal love and strength. “Do You Love Me,” a duet in which Tevye and Golde awkwardly declare their feelings for one another, was charmingly conveyed by Lemons and Strader and was a highlight of the show.
The production also featured a strong supporting cast, most of whom turned in effective performances. As in common in many community theater productions, however, there were some sub par performances within the ensemble ranks but not enough to significantly detract from the overall production. Another distraction were inconsistent accents employed by the show’s performers.
Especially impressive were the show’s male dancers who played Russian youth joining their Jewish neighbors in celebrating Tzeitel’s, ill-fated engagement to Lazar Wolf in “To Life.” They also dazzled as guests who execute the famous “Bottle Dance,” at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration.
Responsible for the show’s stupendous choreography is Anne Nicole Beck and nowhere was her work, and that of lighting designer Ryan Koharchik and costumer Adrienne L. Conces, more spectacular than in “The Dream.” The sequence portrays Tevye’s clever attempt to convince his wife that Zietel should marry Motel instead of Lazar Wolf. The moment during which Wolf’s former wife Fruma-Sarah appears high above Tyeve and Golde’s bed to warn against the marriage is some of the best theater ever seen by this writer. In fact, to describe it as Broadway quality is neither an overstatement nor hyperbole.
Contributing to the production’s professional polish was music director extraordinaire Brent Marty. The Civic veteran expertly led an accomplished 20 piece orchestra and did a superlative job of overseeing the show’s solid vocal performances. Listening to “Matchmaker,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Now I Have Everything,” and the remainder of the show’s iconic score, was like visiting a cherished, longtime friend. Adding to the luster of the show’s musical excellence was that provided by Erin Jeffrey who not only played The Fiddler, but his instrument as well.
It is hard to believe that at one time, some in the media and investors worried that “Fiddler on the Roof” might be considered “too Jewish” and that it would fail to draw mainstream audiences. Fortunately, history has proven that concern misplaced as evidenced by the fact that it was the first musical theater run in history to surpass 3,000 performances. Continuing to endure as one of the most popular musicals of all time, “Fiddler on the Roof” and this Civic Theatre production, in particular, is an absolute must for those who have never seen it and well worth a repeat visit for everyone else.
For tickets and information about Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” call (317) 843-3800 or visit thecenterfortheperfromingarts.org.