A Comfortable Fit
The news at Country Dinner Playhouse is that Bill McHale -- artistic director from the time the playhouse opened in 1970 until his premature retirement in 2000 -- is back. Which means that after three years of lackluster productions, there's a strong, vibrant show on stage. Sure, it's that hoary old favorite Fiddler on the Roof, which first delighted audiences in 1964 and must have been shown at every community theater in the country at some point in the intervening years, but it's tightly staged and wonderfully acted, and the songs, by Jerry Brock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, remain as moving and exhilarating as ever. Of course, you remember them: "If I Were a Rich Man," "Sabbath Prayer," "To Life," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Do You Love Me?"
Fiddler on the Roof is a nostalgic look back at Jewish life in a Russian shtetl at the beginning of the twentieth century. The play shows a small, impoverished, closely knit community, ruffled by occasional squabbles but unified by mutual caring, deeply felt religious ritual and belief, and a rueful, humorous and essentially humanistic view of life. Like the fiddler of the play's title, the community somehow manages to keep its footing in a hostile environment, where muted anti-Semitism is a constant that sometimes flares into violent action. Tevye, the dairyman, is the father of five girls, three of them of marriageable age. As each of the three in turn falls in love, Tevye finds his belief system challenged. By the evening's end, the family's entire way of life -- along with that of all the villagers -- is thrown into chaos.
The musical doesn't stress the plot's tragic dimension. It makes the villagers' poverty picturesque and downplays the violence of the Russians. Nonetheless, Joseph Stein's script is knowing and ironic.
The best thing about the Country Dinner Playhouse production is the cast McHale has assembled. Almost all of the acting is good, and the voices are wonderful -- whether we're hearing them separately in solos or duets, or blended together for the group numbers. The role of Tevye is a gift to a good actor; the dairyman is by turns dignified and foolish, full of joy and utterly cast down, sternly patriarchal and a complete and utter softie. He has a unique and eccentric relationship with his God that colors everything he does and says. Marcus Waterman plays Tevye with humor, feeling, warmth and authority. He's well-matched by Sue Leiser, whose Golde can be either a martinet or a twinkling little dumpling. Her silent, anguished response when the couple's estranged daughter, Chava (Megan DeLay), comes to seek her father's blessing and Tevye refuses to respond, is one of the most moving moments in the play. The three daughters can easily become cloying, but Natalie Liccardello, DeLay and Sally Myers sing well and act charmingly, and DeLay's crystalline rendition of "Far From the Home I Love" brings tears. There's depth to the acting pool and genuine talent in many of the roles, including the smaller ones. I'd be delighted to see Thaddeus Valdez, who plays Lazar Wolf the butcher, in a leading role. He has a magnificent voice and a powerful presence. Kelby Thwaits, too, has serious appeal as the Marxist student Perchik. There's also sterling work by Gregory Price as Mordcha.
The choreography is clean, and McHale makes good use of the playhouse's very constricted space, using ramps that jut out into the audience and playing spots in various nooks of the barn-shaped building. I have a few quibbles, though. There should be a way of staging the wedding scene so that you can see the faces of those singing "Sunrise, Sunset," even if the primary focus remains on the bridal couple. As it was, pretty much all I saw was the rabbi's hat. The Cossacks sang a lot better than they danced in the wonderful number "To Life," but I imagine it's very hard to find performers who sing, act and dance equally well. Because the script makes so much of the prohibition of physical contact between the sexes, I don't understand why the entire cast danced hand in hand in the very first number.
Artistry and music are all very good, but here's the most astonishing change I noticed at the playhouse: The food is good, too. Logistical considerations mean it's hard to provide satisfactory fare at a dinner theater. In most of them, everything sits on a steam table, vegetables getting mushy while chicken breasts and fish become hopelessly overcooked -- and the Country Dinner Playhouse used to be one of the worst offenders. At that time, I tried to make sure to eat before going there to review a play. But on this visit, the buffet included, among other tasty things, spiced apples, Caesar salad (okay, the croutons weren't crisp, but the dressing was nice and the lettuce fresh), creamy macaroni and cheese and baked acorn squash. When I gingerly picked up my piece of fried chicken, expecting the usual limp and tasteless lump, lo and behold, it was decently seasoned and delightfully crisp. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, indeed!
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