The Phamaly production of Fiddler on the Roof did something miraculous: It made me forget all the hackneyed productions I've seen over the years and reminded me of how great the music is, how evocative the story. "Sabbath Prayer" brought an image of my mother — now long gone — praying over the candles on Friday night; "Sunrise, Sunset" summoned my daughter's wedding nine years ago, and a host of thoughts about the inexorable passage of time. Fiddler explores universal human truths in a very specific context: the pogroms conducted against the Jews in turn-of-the-last-century Russia. And although it perhaps soft-pedals the horrors of the period, there's also a modest, humorous understatement that does those horrors a kind of justice. The precarious fiddler himself remains a potent symbol.
Tevye, a milkman from the village of Anatevka and the father of five girls, endures hardship with patience, irony, a little kvetching and many discussions with his God. One of the things I've always loved about Judaism is that it isn't hierarchical; you're not called on to bend your knee or humble yourself before anyone, human or divine, and you are allowed — expected, even — to argue with God, as Tevye most emphatically does. At the heart of the religion is the injunction to do good in the world, and so Tevye, poor as he is, doesn't hesitate to invite a stranger to share the evening meal. But Tevye has to deal with every kind of change as three of his daughters fall in love and challenge the traditions that have always governed the family's life, and he must also try to shield his family from the devastating changes imposed by history.
Many productions play all this for cuteness: poor, silly Tevye and his adorable, rebellious girls. But this production doesn't forget the darkness behind the funny scenes and lilting music. How could it? The company is composed of people who suffer ailments both musculoskeletal and neurological. What they communicate is a deep wisdom that comes from confronting pain and loss daily, and also the pure joy of being on a stage singing and dancing together. These actors are talented and sing well, but their work goes beyond performing; at its core, it's about truth.
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Fiddler on the Roof
Presented by Phamaly Theatre Company through August 11 at the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-365-0005, phamaly.org.
Kathleen Traylor's quietly shining performance as Golde may be her choice or may be imposed by her wheelchair-bound condition; I imagine it comes from a combination, since these factors simply can't be teased apart. Mark Dissette brings strength and wisdom to the role of Tevye, alternating between resistance and rueful acceptance. The three daughters are charming in very different ways: Kenzie Kilroy as sweet, shy Hodel; Rachel Van Scoy as a dignified, intelligent Tzeitel; and graceful dancer Lyndsay Giraldi-Palmer, whose dark eyes change from sulky to soulful on the instant as she plays Chava. The men they love are worthy of them: Jeremy Palmer makes a thoughtful, appealing Perchik. As Motel, Trenton Schindele is authentic and down-to-earth. And Daniel Traylor provides moments of pure exhilaration, as when his Fyedka — who will soon become Chava's beloved — flings himself into a graceful, athletic dance in the tavern scene. Look anywhere on the stage and you'll see interesting faces, faces that appear lit from within. Sophia Hummell, a gifted violinist who was born without a full right arm, plays the Fiddler with the help of a prosthesis, accompanied by an extraordinary youngster, Leslie Wilburn, playing a second fiddler. I can hardly find words to communicate how much I loved Ashley Kelashian's huge-spirited Yente, with her wild griefs and body-shaking enthusiasms; her character feels everything so deeply that you just can't help laughing or tearing up along with her.
The performers' infirmities are listed in the program. Reading all these bios, you understand how skillfully director Steve Wilson, who has worked with Phamaly for many years, winds these into the production, working round them or putting them to deliberate use. For many of his actors, just getting to rehearsals and then standing up on a stage represents a triumph of courage and will. Linda Morken's costumes are terrific, as always. And I have to mention Donna Kolpan Debreceni, whose musical direction and keyboard playing add an element of pure, deep rejoicing to every show she works with — this one no exception. You have one more weekend to catch Fiddler, and I strongly suggest you do so.