Fiddler On The Roof: another barebones masterwork from TTT

Ten Thousand Things Theatre, various venues (check the website), though March 12

Steven Epp in Fiddler On The Roof. Photo by Paula Keller.

When Ten Thousand Things, decides to mount Fiddler on the Roof, one of Broadway’s longest running and best loved musicals, one can’t help but wonder just how they will handle it. The answer is a singular, energetic experience.

The itinerant TTT company offers all its productions free of charge at area prisons, care facilities and schools as well as performing for paying audiences at local venues. Their plays are often cut down to a manageable length with an easily transportable set, and cast members often play several roles.

In the case of Fiddler every cast member plays at least two roles except Steven Epp, who takes on the lead of Tevye, a Jewish milkman at the turn of the last century in Russia. He and his Jewish neighbors live in the shadow of the Tsar’s harsh Christian authorities. Tevye and his wife Golde have the added responsibility of finding suitable husbands for their five daughters. Tension arises when the custom of arranged marriages hits the vortex of the daughters’ desires when they find love matches of their own.

If I had any doubts about Ten Thousand Things being able to pull off the blockbuster Fiddler on the Roof it only took Epp’s singing of “If I Were a Rich Man” with raised arms, a well-placed swivel of his hips and something close to prayer in his heart. His is impeccable. There is something about watching an actor of just the right age and temperament inhabit a role like Tevye, in an intimate setting, with all the lights on, to feel that perhaps there is some vast plan to all our lives and longings.

Director Michelle Hensley and music director Peter Vitale fit this show to their needs and the book (Jerry Bock) music (Joseph Stein) and lyrics (Sheldon Harnick) respond to their requirements. With the exception of Epp’s “Rich Man” most of the songs in the show have been cut down to half their original length and in some cases only a few bars remain. This all works surprisingly well. The cast members are not strong vocalists and the songs, which slow down any musical production, are short enough to keep the pacing brisk.

Songs carry the emotional freight of a musical. With the musical numbers cut down TTT’s production is heavily weighted towards Tevye’s story and away from the love matches of the three oldest daughters. This isn’t bad, just different. (I confess I wished “Sunrise Sunset” had been given more time but that may be a bias of my advancing age.)

Tevye’s daughter’s (Elise Langer, Sheena Janson, and Joy Dolo) and their prospective husbands (Eric Sharp, Kory LaQuess Pullman, and Tyson Forbes) are unfailingly sincere as they navigate their desires. For example, the look in the eyes of Motel the tailor as he waits to earn enough money to buy a sewing machine so he can ask for Tevye’s eldest daughter’s hand in marriage is enough to make us believe in his character and his dilemma.

Earnest acting is what makes the play work. The exception may be Tevye’s wife Golde. Thomasina Petrus, a good actress, makes Golde a relentless shrew rather than a world-weary peasant. Some of her lines could be tossed with sweet sarcasm rather than always thrown with acid temper. Dennis Spears, on the other hand, deftly presents the Russian constable, underplaying his authority in a way that makes him a looming threat to the small Jewish settlement where Tevye and his family live.

The program asks each member of the cast and crew “Why do theatre?” All their answers are revealing. Hensley’s answer is: “At its best, theatre is like fun church for me….” Amen to that. And L’chai-im!

 

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