Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

FIddler on the RoofSometimes you look at a theatre’s listings for the season ahead and a show stands out like a beacon of must-seeishness. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof twice before; once with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria, starring the iconic Topol as Tevye, and once with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, starring Paul Michael Glaser (and damn fine he was too.) Professor and Mrs Plum (who accompanied us on our Chichester weekend) advised us that they’d seen it on Broadway starring Harvey Fierstein. Gosh! I bet he was amazing.

Fiddler - everyoneI’m sure you know the background to this musical. It’s based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem about Tevye and his daughters published in 1894. The author was born in present-day Ukraine, and moved to New York City after witnessing the violence against Jews in southern Russia in 1905. The stories have inspired plays, TV programmes and movies over the years – but none so prominent as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye is the village milkman, with his own philosophy of life that is heavily based on his deep but informal relationship with God, with whom he chats all the time. An upholder and adherent of Tradition, the musical shows you how Tevye copes having daughters who know their own mind and are not afraid to carve out their own way of life. Will he stick with the time-honoured traditions, or will he bend the rules to accommodate their wishes? And what chance does tradition have when it’s up against the outside world of the Czar’s Russia and the violent pogroms of the time?

TevyeSometimes at a show you get that feeling about ten minutes into it when you say to yourself “Wow, I am really loving this!” Gentle reader, I got that feeling. And once that happens you can just sit back and wallow in the pleasure of the whole thing. With all the traditional hallmarks of his Sheffield successes already chalked up, Daniel Evans’ first big show for Chichester – choreography by Alistair David, set design by Lez Brotherston, and a fantastic band courtesy of Tom Brady – is every bit as good as you could possibly dream it might be.

Sabbath PrayerThat’s not to say that in any way it shies away from the harshness of the reality of Tevye’s life and the village of Anatevka. If anything, this was the least saccharine portrayal of their day to day existence I’ve seen. The disruption to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration, for instance, stops you dead in your tracks with its mindless cruelty. When the villagers are informed that they will have to leave everything and go away, their desolation is palpable. But so much of the strength of the show comes from that balance of emotions between the sweet and the sour. The strongest moments (and songs) combine that hankering after something you just can’t have (If I were a Rich Man), and making the best of the here and now (To Life). Add to that the blind optimism of Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Miracle of Miracles plus the wistfulness of Do You Love Me and Sunrise, Sunset and you have one of the strongest scores in the history of musicals. Obvious, I know, but it occurred to me that, every time you hear Sunrise, Sunset, you’re just a little – significantly – older than the last time you heard it. My reaction to the stunning performance it receives in this production was to feel remarkably mortal. But when some aspect of a show pulls you up short and makes you question your own reality, you know theatre is doing its job properly.

Rabbinical questionsThe production is notable for some mind-boggling staging moments. The Fruma-Sarah dream sequence is extraordinary, with the spectral old biddy hovering large above the bed like a Jewish Sword of Damocles, the eerie presence of an army of demonic ghosts, and at one stage I thought the entire theatre was going to go up in flames! It’s a breathtakingly brilliant scene. Also stunning, but in a much more reflective way, was how the backstage opened up during the Sabbath Prayer so that you could see the other households in the village all following the same tradition; that was extremely effective and rather moving.

Matchmaker MatchmakerOf course, a huge part of the attraction for this particular production is the inspired casting of Omid Djalili as Tevye. He’s a very accomplished stand-up comic – we’ve loved him both times we’ve seen him – who involves uninhibited physicality as part of his humour. He was always going to be perfect in this role and boy does he not disappoint. From the moment you first see him, he’s got that glint in his eye that says we’ve gotta show to do and we’re all gonna have fun whilst never ever coming out of character or indeed turning Tevye into any kind of pantomime.

Mendel, Motel and the boysIn fact, for a larger-than-life comedian, it’s astounding how ordinary and normal he presents the character – which is great, because it’s so much easier for the audience to identify with him. He is a real man, with real problems but also a real sense of fun. As you would imagine, he absolutely made If I Were a Rich Man his own, and every time he comes on he lights up the stage. Make no mistake; when he disowns Chava for marrying the Christian Fyedka, his face is like thunder and his fury is undeniable – this is a man pushed to the limit and, much as it grieves him, he is determined to stand by his God rather than his daughter. This unfatherly reaction is uncomfortable for the audience. Apparently not every problem can be solved by a show tune. He is desperate to put the past behind them; and we can see him start to soften when he reminds Tzeitel to say “and God be with you” when she and Chava part; but he never gives in. Stubborn? Pious? Simply human? Tevye has complex emotions and beliefs which Mr Djalili explores and expresses magnificently.

GoldeThere’s also a tremendous performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman as Golde; funny, wry, spirited, bossy but essentially extremely kind-hearted, holding the household together whilst Tevye’s out working, or chewing the cud with God, or celebrating with Lazar Wolf. And of course she has a stunning voice that comes across so strongly, especially in the beautiful Sabbath Prayer sequence. Simbi Akande, Emma Kingston and Rose Shaloo make a great trio of daughters, presenting their father with challenge after challenge; they give us a fresh and funny Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel sings a spine-tingling rendition of Far From the Home that I Love.

Motel and TzeitelI barely recognised the wonderful Liza Sadovy as Yente; as always, she gives the role a feisty and humorous characterisation. And I loved Jos Slovick’s Motel performing Miracle of Miracles – a couple of minutes of sheer reckless joy in what you sense is otherwise a fairly joyless life. Louis Maskell’s Perchik has just the right amount of confident and disdainful swagger to impress as the intellectual rebel without being a pain in the backside; and you just know that life is nevertheless going to teach him a thing or two as time goes on. And it was great to see Harry Francis again, as the rabbi’s son Mendel, brilliantly integrating outstandingly skilful dance moves into the big numbers.

Tevye takes them awayIt’s a huge cast, and everyone performs with absolute commitment and a sense of true enjoyment. It’s already been extended by a week, so the show now runs until 2nd September – but that’s surely not going to be the last we see of it? A credit to all involved. We all loved it.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2014

Fiddler on the Roof 1983I booked this on the strength of its being a fine old musical that I haven’t seen for many years – and Mrs Chrisparkle has only ever seen the film, on which, if truth be told, I don’t think she’s that keen. But it was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourites, and I have happy memories of learning to play all its top tunes on the piano when I was a teenager, at her behest. My piano playing style was always… direct, I think would be a complimentary term; my friends used to call me “Thumper” when it came to the keyboard. Many’s the evening where I would thump out melodies such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “If I were a Rich Man” to my heart’s content. I actually remember in my very early days of theatregoing how all my parents’ friends and relatives would go overboard with excitement about seeing this show in London, starring Alfie Bass. He was their hot ticket. I never saw Alfie Bass; but I did accompany the Dowager to see the show at the Apollo Victoria in 1983 starring the legendary Topol. She absolutely loved it.

Fiddler on the Roof 2014All these recollections came back to me as we waited in our excellent seats at the Royal and Derngate for what has turned out to be the penultimate week of this national tour of Fiddler on the Roof starring Paul Michael Glaser (yes, Starsky) and directed by Craig Revel Horwood. Not inappropriately for a show that is shamelessly sentimental, it made me feel somewhat, as the poet once said, totes emosh. When I was that teenager banging out showbiz tunes on the Joanna, I remember wondering if I would ever get to be old enough for the, what I considered at the time, self-indulgently naff lyrics of “Sunrise, Sunset” actually to have any significance for me. Well, forty years on, I can tell that arrogant teenager that yes, when you’ve survived this far, it touches you more than you could imagine.

Paul Michael GlaserAnyway, I’m digressing before I’ve started. It was a packed house for a midweek evening performance of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s long-lasting and not remotely dated musical, which chalked up 3,242 performances on its original Broadway run (making it the longest running show at the time) and also a highly respectable 2,030 performances on its original West End run. Joseph Stein’s book is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Milkman, written and set in what is now Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Liz Singleton and Steven BorBroadly speaking, we’re talking the Russo-Jewish change agenda of 110 years ago. It’s set in a place (the small Russian village of Anatevka) and at a time (1905) when local traditions and practice were being uprooted on a political, national level, as shown in the heartless pogroms against the Jewish towns and villages; but also on a personal, familial level. Tevye’s firmly rooted in his “Tradition” values, where it’s the Papa who decides which of his children will marry the person the Papa chooses. However, Tevye’s three daughters have other ideas, and it’s the lengths to which Tevye manages to compromise, or not, with his strict religious and societal beliefs that provides the plot development of the show. As a result, you get to run the gamut of emotions all evening long, as we experience with Tevye and his family their friendships, love, hopes, fears, hatred, joy, sadness, and more. It’s all there. As the “disturbances” against the local Jewish community get progressively more violent, their options for survival get more limited. Hence the fiddler on the roof herself weaves in and out of the action, a symbol of irrepressible quirky spirit and continued precarious danger, played with impish charm by Jennifer Douglas. No wonder it’s a three hour show.

Neil Salvage and Michael PaverYou have to hand it to them, this is one terrific production. Diego Pitarch’s set is perfect for the job, with a central revolving pod that can serve as the outside of Tevye’s house and can also open up to reveal the internal living areas; and to the sides of the stage two static structures that can be Motel’s workshop or the entrance to the inn. It folds back completely to host the wonderful “To Life” scene at the inn. The costume designs accurately reflect the workaday nature of the locals’ lives and their level of poverty – hard up, but not without income and provisions. In what is becoming something of a trademark approach with a Craig Revel Horwood production, there isn’t a separate, remote band, but the on-stage actors all play orchestral instruments as well as performing their roles. This has a great unifying effect, as you appreciate the skill and creativity of all the people you can directly see on stage. Individual instruments also become additional voices for their associated characters, and it works a treat. It is so much more successful here than in Mr Horwood’s production of Chess where the instrument-playing cast members just got in the way of the action and ended up blocking all the best views. Musically, the show is a complete treat – the orchestrations are perfect and the performers create some really gutsy sounds from their instruments – for instance, Michael Paver’s trumpet playing and Susannah van den Berg’s clarinet really stood out.

Paul Michael Glaser and Jon TrenchardBut of course the show is all about Tevye. In fact it’s hard to name a musical with a more dominant central character, so any production of Fiddler on the Roof could succeed or fail on the strength of one performer. Well, there was no need to worry on that score. Paul Michael Glaser is an astoundingly good Tevye; thoughtful, reflective, gently self-deprecating, and thoroughly realistic. It would be easy to go over the top with caricature, funny accents, and silly physical comedic gimmicks in this show, but Mr Glaser sets the tone perfectly with his naturalistic, warm, and wry characterisation. He creates an instant rapport with the audience – who very nearly broke into a star applause welcome when he first appeared (but just held back) – even occasionally connecting with patrons in the front stalls when he’s seeking agreement or confirmation with his mind-musings. There’s no denying it, Topol was great, a marvellous entertainer and charismatic performer; but where he could occasionally drift into caricature and become slightly ridiculous (think of the body swagger in “If I Were a Rich Man”), Mr Glaser just acts like a genuinely kind, straightforward old man, cherishing his dreams, putting his family first. And what a voice he has! Rich, full, strong; a perfect match for those classics he has to sing. It’s not the voice of a 71 year old man. Starsky 71? No wonder I’m feeling old!

The three daughtersHe has a great connection too with Karen Mann as his wife Golde, enjoying the subtle “long-suffering” act that any husband does about his wife if he has a third person watching. However, her long-suffering responses are the more genuine, confirming, if you were in any doubt, that us men are generally much harder to put up with overall. Their “Do You Love Me?” duet was a sheer delight, her batting off his attempts to wallow in self-praise, his refusing to be thwarted. It was a very funny, but loving scene, beautifully performed.

Claire PetzalThere are plenty of other fantastic performances to match the central characters. Emily O’Keeffe’s Tzeitel is a splendidly responsible oldest daughter, ostensibly attached to her parents’ traditional values – but she will have you holding back the tears when she begs not to be married to Lazar. Liz Singleton is a self-assured and spirited Hodel, responding bravely to Perchik’s tradition-breaking advances and following him in his latter exile; and Claire Petzal is a charming and coquettish young Chava when first approached by Fyedka, but surprisingly and sadly resolute in her ability to withstand her father’s disapproval. All three sing stunningly – their “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” was exquisitely performed, a marvellous testimony to the optimism of youth.

Paul Michael Glaser and Emily O'KeeffeI really enjoyed Jon Trenchard’s performance as the nervous but gradually more confident Motel, withering visibly as he tries to tell Tevye that he wants to marry Tzeitel, proudly displaying his sewing machine more than his baby, and giving us a genuinely joyful rendition of “Miracle of Miracles”. Steven Bor makes for a suitably radical Perchik (the role played by Paul Michael Glaser in the film), mischievously incorporating Bolshevik views into his tutoring but proving himself to be as drippy as any lovesick boy imaginable when Hodel accepts his humorously business-like proposal.

Jennifer DouglasLiz Kitchen is a delightfully meddlesome and gossipy Yente the Matchmaker, always failing to mask quite how self-obsessed she is; Eamonn O’Dwyer makes an amusing if unexpectedly camp Innkeeper, as well as a polite but ruthless Police Constable, Neil Salvage a hilariously woolly Rabbi, Daniel Bolton a dignified Fyedka, and Susannah van den Berg a wonderfully scary resurrection of the late Fruma-Sarah, hovering over Tevye and Golde’s bed like a flying operatic bat.

Paul Michael Glaser and Karen MannThere’s only a few more days left to catch it at the Derngate, and then a week at Eastbourne before it wraps up for good – for a show this enjoyable, it would be a crime to miss it. Great to see it still commands a big audience, and it reminds us, through the medium of musical comedy, of a harrowing time in history that must not be forgotten.