Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof (Stratford Festival)

stratfordYiddish humour is a tricky thing to pull off, whether you’re working with material as strong as the book for Fiddler or not. A great deal of this style’s power comes out of a place of sadness, of being a bit of a hapless outsider, and that sadness has to come through first. The humour comes out of the little asides you make in response to challenges, in the little ways our heroes cope through jokes.

If I have one chief complaint with Stratford’s staging of the classic musical, it’s that the jokes come first. Tevye (Scott Wentworth) nails the vocal lilt, almost a verbal shrug, that’s probably the Yiddish accent’s most famous attribute in English, but it’s strangely empty without a world-weariness to drive it. Which isn’t to say his performance is bad; his key moments with wife Golde (Kate Hennig) and daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava (Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French and Keely Hutton) are tender and loving, and he is a funny performer. But when the heart and soul of a show like this acts like he knows he’s funny, well… it loses something.

That about sums up this production in its entirety. With appropriately rustic stage dressing and costumes and solid performers, you’re guaranteed a Fiddler that gets the job done. The play has its own energy and hear that come through even the most rote performance. Take Motel, the tailor boy who marries Tzeitel and breaks with the tradition that Tevye extolls in the opening number. His nerves and awkwardness come across, but his big number lacks vocal power and physical largesse; he is just a small, stationary man on a big stage.

Thinking back on this production, one number stands out as everything they got wrong: Tevye’s “If I Were A Rich Man.” If you’re going to knock one song out of the park, make it this one. Its simultaneous yearning for the impossible along with weary resignation that it will never be is the thematic undercurrent tying the entire play together. Its emotional core is an unreachable, rapturous joy so profound Tevye can’t put it into words. His “biddy-biddy byes” are a pure, flowing expression of complex emotion, an unintelligible prayer to God.

Wentworth delivers those lines as if each word is, well, a word. It’s as if he’s scatting along in a jazz number. He enunciates each syllable clearly, giving them equal lexical weight. It ruins the significance of the key part of the song that is key to the entire play. Add the fact that Wentworth is a fine singer but can’t quite fill the room with his voice, and critical people such as myself start to check their watches a little too often.

Fiddler on the Roof is a wonderful story that’s near impossible, I think, to get wildly wrong. What you can do, however, is a paint-by-numbers approach that suggests rather than communications the script’s greatness. Stratford put all the colours in the right place. Shame they didn’t go over the lines a bit.

2.5 out of 5 sewing machines.

~Mike!

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One thought on “Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof (Stratford Festival)

  1. Hear, hear!! I saw it yesterday after great word-of-mouth and felt pretty uninspired/unimpressed until the wedding party is trashed at the end of act one. That and the second act ultimately redeemed the production for me, but, overall, it was not even close to the best production of a show I first saw as a teenager in the 1960’s (Paul Lipson understudying Luther Adler at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre). Dare I say–and I’m a gentile–it wasn’t Jewish enough?

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