Based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof is the story of the small Russian town of Anatevka at the beginning of the 20th century, when anti-Jewish sentiment was creeping across the land with horrifying results. The milkman Tevye, his wife Golde, and their five (yes, FIVE) daughters are the lens through which the changing times are focused. As the outside world encroaches on this tiny town, they begin to find that their position is even more precarious than that of their title fiddler.
Director Pirooz Aghssa approaches the show with clear affection for the piece. His staging is simple and usually effective, though the pace has a tendency to drag. There were a few opportunities (both comic and dramatic) that were missed: Many jokes that draw explicitly on Jewishness felt like they whizzed by the cast. The disruption at Tzeitel's wedding lacked the menace that we needed hanging over us as we headed out for intermission. And the lamenting farewell to Anatevka felt a little unfocused. But if there is one thing Aghssa does right, it's sentimentality. Young love and fatherly love were the stars of the show, and he handily shaped moment after moment to build the characters' attachments to one another, making their hardships all the more painful for the audience to bear. On the other hand, Jennifer Graham's choreography was a little stagnant throughout. She seemed to be opting more for sculpture and tableau than movement to communicate the songs, and the energy and interest of the numbers often suffered for it.
Rick Eva anchors the production as a likeable, funny and emotionally complex Tevye. Though his vocals are not always as strong as I might have liked, he more than makes up for it with Tevye's consistent charm and sincerity. He has good comic timing, treats his onstage family with warmth, and earns some truly heartbreaking moments.
Michael Herman as Motel the Tailor was a clear stand-out. In his hands, Motel is a quirky, twitchy, endearing little guy who we root for in his quest for the little bit of happiness he hopes to carve out for himself. Kasey Donnelly as Tzeitel, Amber Lawson as Hodel and Kristin McSweeney as Chava are lovely as Tevye's three oldest daughters - the heart of the play. I particularly enjoyed Lawson's clear-as-a-bell voice, and McSweeney's sweet, genuine portrayal of Chava was lovely and powerful. Elliott Styles and Gage DeAngelis were strong as Perchik and Fyedka respectively, providing worthy, apt, and distinctly charming companions for Hodel and Chava. Helena Bardakjian was solid as Golde, Tevye's long-suffering wife. Nancy Walker's Yente - the fast-talking matchmaker (a role that has the opportunity to steal the show) - delivered a disappointing performance, plowing past punchlines and missing the overall spirit of the character. Lauren Zamiska as the adorable Grandma Tzeitel and Sydney Woll as Fruma-Sarah did admirable work bringing Tevye's dream into its own strange little pocket of Anatevka. And Jeffry Ogden as Sasha deserves special mention for the crystalline tenor he lends to a couple of numbers. The chorus performs commendably throughout, with strong voices and focus that fill out the town well.
The evocative and beautifully spare set design by John Charles uses silhouette and sketchy lines as an elegant illustration of the precariousness of Anatevka and its occupants. Brian Scruggs's lighting design supports the set splendidly, reinforcing the mood from scene to scene with painterly appeal. Melanie Schuessler's handsome costumes top off the strong design package of this production with historical accuracy and the characteristic simplicity that defines the world of this Fiddler.
EMU's stop at Anatevka is all too brief, with only two weekends in their run. So if you're in the mood for a solid evening of classic musical theatre, you don't have much time before the sun sets on this one.
Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Director: Pirooz Aghssa) continues at Eastern Michigan University's Quirk Theatre through October 27. For more information, visit http://www.emich.edu/cmta/productions/2013season/fiddler.php