This lovingly staged, if rather safe, new production of perennial classic Fiddler on the Roof is anchored by a sterling performance from Australia’s unchallenged Leading Man of the stage, Anthony Warlow.
Director Roger Hodgman delivers a revival that hits all the marks, without pushing the boundaries in any way, for an entirely satisfying night at the theatre. Newcomers, in particular, will be blown away by the power and beauty of the much loved 1964 musical. In this streamlined staging, storytelling is crystal clear, and the connection to the current plight of the word’s refugees is painfully evident without the need for any explicit references or parallels.
A veritable hit parade of Broadway standards all from the one show, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s much-loved score sounds superb under the highly experienced baton of musical director Kellie Dickerson. The lively arrangements have such a full and interesting sound that it is surprising to discover there are only ten musicians in the pit. The clarity of Michael Waters’ sound design allows each of these instruments to be heard individually; vocal reproduction and balance are also expertly handled.
As much as the songs, and Joseph Stein’s book, are tremendous assets, Jerome Robbins’ original choreography is an integral aspect of the show’s ongoing attraction. In reproducing Robbins’ choreography, Dana Jolly has delivered thrilling work that is a joy to behold. Opening number “Tradition” establishes the dance vocabulary of the show and features precise, interesting patterns. The Russian dancing in “To Life” is exciting, and the full company work in “Tevye’s Dream” gives the 95-minute act one an infusion of energy. The dance highlight of the evening is act one’s climactic “Wedding Dance,” which not only features the sensational bottle dance, but also explicitly drives the plot as Perchik’s drive for change brings down male-female barriers, ramping up the festive joy to new heights.
Given the local industry’s reliance on imported, franchised productions, it is impressive to see a new staging that has originated in Australia. Richard Roberts set design features outlines of houses, with wooden walls continuing overhead to represent the insular life of the villagers, who are trying, in vain, to ignore the rest of the world. The staging is attractive, if not particularly innovative, with house units being moved forward and turned by the crew to reveal interiors. In the powerful final moments as the villagers are forced to move on, the facades of the houses retreat in the distance while the overhead outline of their presence remains. Despite the characters’ despair, their lives have left an imprint.
Paul Jackson’s lighting design bathes the space in amber sunsets and richly atmospheric midnight blues and purples.
Demonstrating the deliciously warm vocals and charmingly charismatic presence that have made him a genuine box office attraction, Warlow makes a welcome Australian return as dairyman Tevye. Breaking the mold somewhat, Warlow’s Tevye is a spritely, vital man with a twinkle in his eye, rather than the cuddly, world-weary, grey-bearded man of old. Much as Tevye has plenty to sing, the role does not quite give Warlow’s pipes the workout of which they are capable. Still, “If I Were a Rich Man” absolutely brings down the house. Warlow clearly establishes Tevye’s relationship with his God without overplaying it, and lands the night’s best laughs with aplomb.
While this revival started performances a week ago, it is interesting to note that Broadway’s current revival of Fiddler on the Roof had a full month of previews. The creative team’s work here is slick and very well rehearsed, but there is a sense that the production will develop a more “lived in” feel with time. Part of the difficulty is the expansive canvas of characters, many of whom are set up with minimal pay off; they are just part of the fabric of the village. Jewish customs, such as kissing the mezuzah on the doorpost, will surely become more like second nature with repetition. The show has succeeded for a long time with good reason, and the heart and power of the characters are all there.
Following Warlow, the strongest music theatre performance on stage comes from established talent Blake Bowden. Partially hiding his handsome looks under a student cap, Bowden’s magnetic presence shines through as impassioned young revolutionary Perchik. Bowden displays gentle sweetness as he teaches Hodel to dance and, later, when he sings act two opener “Now I Have Everything,” and is at his powerful best as Perchik leads the mixed-gender dancing at the wedding. This is a complex scene with intricate timing, and Bowden handles it with and supreme flair and confidence.
Recording star Lior makes a smooth transition to music theatre, looking natural and relaxed on stage. As Motel the tailor, Lior makes easy work of characterful ballad “Miracle of Miracles,” and proves effortlessly proficient at dance as well.
A talented trio of rising artists portray the romantic travails of Tevye’s three eldest daughters. As the gently virtuous Tzeitel, Teagan Wouters misses the chance to display her powerful belt but gives an endearing performance nonetheless. Monica Swayne sings with affecting sweetness, giving a moving rendition of act two ballad “Far From The Home I Love.” Jessica Vickers deftly balances Chava’s plucky romantic side with her delicate vulnerability.
Experienced performers fill key character roles. Long-term star Sigrid Thornton, at home in all mediums of entertainment, is a canny choice to play opposite Warlow, in that the veteran actress brings mighty skills in standing her ground and establishing a solid character. Not the strongest singer, Thornton nonetheless finds a characterful, delicate tone for Golde’s vocals.
Nicki Wendt ramps up the energy of Yente the matchmaker, delivering welcome laughs in her first scene with Golde. Mark Mitchell captures the full personality of Lazar Wolf the butcher, maintaining a warm twinkle in his eye even when the character becomes angry.
Jensen Overend is suitably charming as Russian lad Fyedka. Derek Taylor brings respectful gravitas to the Rabbi, avoiding any over the top theatrics. Anthony Pepe has a strong presence as Mendel, the Rabbi’s son.
The full company is clearly filled with triple threats, who are able to create distinct and colourful characters, sing the harmonies beautifully and dance in spectacular fashion.
A reverential production of an all time classic, the new tour of Fiddler on the Roof has much to enjoy, not the least of which is the star appearance of Anthony Warlow.
Fiddler on the Roof plays at Princess Theatre, Melbourne until 27 February 2016. It then plays in Sydney from 24 March 2016.