Review: PCS's "Fiddler on the Roof"

Portland Center Stage does justice to the multi-Tony-winning musical with its tasteful new production.

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg September 23, 2013

Full disclosure: Before the lights had even gone down on opening night of Portland Center Stage's new production of Fiddler on the Roof, I was irrevocably biased. I love this play. To start with, the multiple-Tony-winning 1964 show's music, composed by Jerry Bock (with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick), beautifully, memorably transposes the minor-key Jewish musical tradition into the very-major-key musical-theater context. Then there's the book, adapted by Joseph Stein from tales by famed Yiddish-language writer Sholem Aleichem: as its broad, enduring popularity demonstrates, the story of Tevye and his daughters is about not only the Jewish people's particular struggle to balance tradition and modernity, but the universal conflict between change and the status quo. Though Tevye fretted over new ideas such as romantic love and we worry about new technology such as smartphones, we're asking the same questions: which traditions ought we to keep—which are too important to lose?

Fiddler is also a story of resilience, of putting one foot in front of the other—of hope. That's where director Chris Coleman begins (and ends) PCS's staging: with a line of people waiting, with something like hope, for a boat to America. These are the former residents of Anatevka, evicted from their shtetl in Russia as part of Tsar Nicholas II's turn-of-the-century campaign against his empire's Jewish population. Among them is our protagonist, Tevye, a destitute dairyman with five daughters. He and his family's forced relocation to the United States is just the last in a series of drastic changes in Tevye's world: over the preceding few years, each of the milkman's three eldest daughters have in some way forced their moderate, pious father to question and, more often than not, bend his beliefs. For him—as for anyone who believes in tradition—it has been a balancing act as precarious as, well, playing fiddle on a roof.

At the Gerding Theatre, Tevye's story unfolds on a minimalist, evocative set created by scenic designer G.W. Mercier. A gorgeous backdrop of towering, reclaimed-wood panels simultaneously suggests the play's rustic setting and, by reference to the vertical lines of a synagogue, its characters' faith, while a circle of dirt on the “floor” reminds of these peasants' hardscrabble existence.

Mercier's minimalist set contrasts with the production's maximalist cast—PCS's largest ever. It's a strong ensemble that doesn't really have any weak singers and, as the play's numerous impressively choreographed scenes show (hats off to Kent Zimmerman, who reproduces Jerome Robbins's original choreography), boasts several fleet-footed dancers. Working in the shadow of Chaim Topol's definitive portrayal of Tevye in the 1971 film version of Fiddler, PCS Tevye David Studwell delivers a fine performance, drawing out, perhaps even better than Topol, the comedic aspects of the character. Also deserving of kudos is the fiddler himself, Tylor Neist; walking among the other characters (but never speaking) he plays with a crystal-clear tone and deep expressiveness.

Fiddler on the Roof
Gerding Theatre at the Armory
Thru Nov 3
As I took my seat at the Gerding, I may
have been prejudiced in favor of Fiddler—but that doesn't mean I was prejudiced in favor of PCS's production. To the contrary: the fact that I—and many others—hold this play dear just means the company's potential for failure was greater. Fortunately, like our daredevil violinist, Chris Coleman has more than managed “to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck,” doing justice to Fiddler with this faithful, tastefully staged, and capably performed production.

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