By Bill Beard
Take note! There’s something happening for a couple more weeks now that you do not want to miss! Just up I-90 in Ft. Atkinson, Wis., the Fireside Dinner Theatre is celebrating its 50th anniversary by highlighting yet another revival of the old favorite musical, Fiddler on the Roof. This is the fifth time Fireside has done Fiddler since 1980, and once again, the role of Tevye is being played by the marvelous Ed Flesch, long-time artistic director of this celebrated Midwest professional theater. He also handles the director’s duties here.
The original production opened on Broadway in 1964, the same year The Fireside first opened its doors. As noted in the Fiddler playbill: “Tens of millions of people worldwide have fallen in love with Tevye, the long-suffering dairyman who struggles to find a balance between his traditions and his family. It is a heart-warming story featuring favorite melodies like “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Matchmaker,” “If I Were A Rich Man” and more hit songs from one of Broadway’s most beautiful musical scores. It’s a joyful “Tradition” to share!”
As always at The Fireside, the cast and production values are excellent. From the opening moment of the show, with the appearance and musical introduction of the character of “the Fiddler,” the level of musical excellence was set for the evening by the brilliant playing of violinist Jonathan Schriock of Kansas City. This is usually an actor faking the fiddling, with music supplied over the sound system. But here, we heard excellent violin playing; and Mr. Schriock’s virtuoso performance at the beginning of Act II was sensational.
Other musical high points included Tevye’s touching “Little Bird (Chaveleh),” Hodel’s (Pati-Lee Meringo) “Far From the Home I Love,” Motel’s (Justin Brill) “Miracle of Miracles,” plus all the wonderful moments of perfect harmony sung by the impressive Ensemble. Congrats to Musical Director Mary Ehlinger.
Tevye’s daughters and their male counterparts were all well handled; although Katie Sina as Tzeitel, though an excellent actress, appeared somewhat less ethnic than her sisters, and might have been better suited to one of the many roles in her bio, e.g., Millie (as in “Thoroughly Modern,” or Mary (as in “Poppins”). Bryan Manley Davis was a tall, handsome Fyedka, with just enough warmth to win; but it was Joshua Phan-Gruber as Perchik the teacher who deserves kudos for best supporting actor, and for his singing of “Now I Have Everything.”
MJ Bernhardt grew into an interesting, though unusual, Yenta; and Eadie Scott as Golda had the appropriate strength, but also had a sort of shrillness about her that hid the underlying warmth this wife and mother needs.
But, of course, this is Tevye’s show. Mr. Flesch’s take on this lovable patriarch of a traditional Jewish family in a small Ukrainian village in the early stages of the 1905 Russian Revolution was just a bit unusual. He seems to have chosen to withhold some of the usual ethnic vocal patterns and mannerisms, giving Tevye something of a more contemporary, almost casual, delivery. No Zero Mostel or Topol here. But his Tevye is still rich with a depth of understanding of the changes and challenges facing his family and their traditions. Flesch has a marvelous sense of timing, both comic and dramatic; he knows exactly how and when to help an audience find the humor or the poignance of the moment.
Actually, the usual ethnic lilt and melody seemed, to some degree, missing in much of the cast, which may very well have made the overall substance of the plot that much more meaningful to today’s audience. Nonetheless, there was a certain richness and warmth that I needed just a bit more of.
But this wonderful musical is not all that often produced these days, with all the rock and pop and “New-Age” Broadway variations in vogue. So you should make certain not to miss the always top-notch professional shows at The Fireside, especially when you have an opportunity to see the work of a brilliant theater magician like Ed Flesch. Don’t miss it!
Fiddler on the Roof plays through Sunday, June 8. Phone now for tickets: 800-477-9505; or go online at www.firesidetheatre.com. By the way, the food is great!
From the May 21-27, 2014, issue