Exuberant musicals are the Country Dinner Playhouse's stock-in-trade, though sometimes that exuberance can seem forced. The most recent show at the Playhouse, 42nd Street, was a terrific, bouncy re-creation of a 1930s extravaganza and the best thing the CDP had done in a long while. But its newest production, Fiddler on the Roof, exceeds 42nd Street by a mile.
There is so much more to this show than most musicals have to offer--it's a good, poignant story with fascinating characters, universal conflicts and rich ethnic detail. The CDP cast members seem to know that the show means something, and they respond with an energy that feels very real.
The story is set in 1905 in the small Russian village of Anatevka, just as the breath of revolution has begun to blow across the land. The Jewish population lives in uneasy cordiality with the Christians in this particular village, but pogroms and other forms of persecution are an ever-present threat.
Tevye the Dairyman is a religious man--a man who talks constantly to God, scolding and coaxing Him and trying always to live in strict accordance with his faith. But as the political climate changes and he watches his five daughters grow into young women, the traditions of his forefathers suddenly come into question. His eldest daughter refuses the comfortable man her papa has chosen for her in favor of a poor tailor. Young Tzeitel begs her father not to force her to marry against her will, and the soft-hearted Tevye gives in--going to extravagant (and hilarious) lengths to convince his wife that God Himself has planned Tzeitel's marriage to the tailor Motel.
When his second daughter falls in love with a revolutionary student, it's harder yet on poor Tevye, because the young man has nothing at all to offer and will take the girl far from home. Nevertheless, he consents. And then the worst happens: The third daughter falls in love with a Christian. He's a good, sensitive man, but his threat to the family is even worse than the revolutionary's. Chava and Fyedka are married by a priest without her papa's permission or blessing. Tradition has kept the Jewish community together, and his favorite child has broken with it. Tevye can't bear it. The threads of culture are beginning to fray. And just as he's losing his family, soldiers arrive to drive the Jewish villagers from their homes. Some go to America; others scatter far and wide.
Marcus Waterman is a sensitive, intelligent actor capable of surprising people even in the midst of the silliest musical comedy. But as Tevye, he finally has a role worthy of his talent and presence. The lean Waterman carries himself as if he were portly here, and he has pitched his voice (never his strongest talent) from the gut, giving it unexpected resonance.
Sue Leiser is warm and believable as his slightly shrewish wife, and Ann Ducati is terrific as Yente the Matchmaker. Together they make a marvelous comic team, creating a sisterly intimacy on stage that gives the whole show ballast and feminine joy. Penny Alfrey gives Tzeitel a natural innocence and strength. Ronni Stark is charming as Chava, as is Cydney Rosenbaum as Hodel--though Rosenbaum is a touch too enthusiastically young (the wide-eyed thing worked better in 42nd Street).
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The dance sequences are stunning--particularly at the wedding, when two actors poise bottles on their fedoras and dance on their knees. Director Bill McHale has outdone himself with the dance routines and staging--but then, he had Jerry Bock's lovely, ingenious score and Sheldon Harnick's witty, astute lyrics to inspire him.
Few musicals deal with anything nearly as important as this one. Most of the older musicals are treacle by comparison, and the stuff created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and his ilk is all self-conscious angst wrapped up in even more self-conscious kink. Fiddler, on the other hand, demonstrates with humor and pathos the variety of assaults a minority culture can suffer--and still manage to celebrate life, love and even inevitable change.
Fiddler on the Roof, through September 7 at the Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 799-1410.