by Michael Bowen
Maybe our expectations are set too high. Fiddler on the Roof (at the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater through Aug. 23), the 1965 Broadway hit, opens with three unforgettable songs: "Tradition," then "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," then "If I Were a Rich Man." We're humming along before we're even settled in our seats.
In the CdA Fiddler, however, some of the less well-known numbers ("Sabbath Prayer," "Far from the Home I Love") are the most moving, while some of the familiar tunes and the ending -- tragedy mixed with hope -- seem less inspired.
In the early going, there are lulls in the action and some slow scene changes, as if director/choreographer Gary John LaRosa and his cast had poured all their energy into the big musical numbers, leaving no room for between-the-scenes energy. And an amateurish scenic backdrop doesn't inspire confidence. For the most part, however, this is a poignant Fiddler. It explores themes of persecution and personal loss without idealizing Shalom Aleichem's characters. And like most productions of Fiddler, it is encapsulated by the image of the lonely and overworked dairyman bartering with God.
William Rhodes has the vocal range, rueful weariness and comic timing to pull off an engaging Tevye. "If I Were a Rich Man," for example, starts out very soft and slow, as if Tevye felt abashed about his own dreams. Rhodes then builds the song into a powerful bellow of wishful imagining. It's too bad that he was hampered by an in-and-out sound system.
Barrel-chested, yet twinkle-eyed and agile, Rhodes's Tevye trudges along, pulling his dairy cart behind him and resigning himself to hard work. Says the man whose horse has just come up lame, "Today, I am a horse."
What's affecting in Rhodes' portrayal is the humanity Tevye's relationship with God is. He pleads, complains, bargains, cajoles with his God, becoming a sort of comic Job. If not exactly smitten with boils, he still has to endure the loss of three daughters, the splitting-up of his family, the loss of his home and his community.
Part of what's refreshing about Fiddler is the complexity of its vision. We root for Tevye, but he's far from a perfect man: Just for starters, he's whiny, sexist and stubborn. But he's also full of optimism in the face of difficult circumstances -- full, in short, of vitality and life. Joseph Stein's book and Sheldon Harnick's lyrics see both sides of issues: Tradition, for example, unites a community in reverence for the wisdom and accomplishments of those who preceded us. But it also prevents a father from admitting that arranged marriages and marrying strictly within the Jewish faith are customs that can undermine society rather than bolster it.
And Tevye has a lot of daughters to marry off: Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze & amp; Bielke. (It sounds like a Slavic law firm.) In "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," the show's second song, each of Tevye's three elder daughters -- Callie McKinney Cabe, Krista Kubicek, Lauralyn McClelland -- wishes that Yente would "catch me a catch," even as the three of them dance with mops and pass them back and forth like some kind of triple play, from Tzeitel to Hodel to Chava.
Yet as playful as that number is, there's plenty of seriousness, too. The villagers of Anatevka are impoverished and beset by enemies, and they have only their faith to unite them. But theirs is a powerful faith, and powerfully evoked in "Sabbath Prayer." In a sequence that's unusual for musicals -- only a handful treat religious faith with much seriousness -- LaRosa deploys his cast in five choruses, two of them behind a scrim backdrop, ethereal and dreamlike. They chant their wishes for themselves with solemnity: "May [they] come to be / In Israel a shining name.... Strengthen them, Oh Lord, / And keep them from the strangers' ways." It's quite moving, and the best evocation of genuine faithfulness in a show that depends on our believing in the villagers' piety.
"To Life," in contrast, is festive, featuring a powerful men's chorus that backs the spectacle of two large men (Rhodes and William Marlowe, as Lazar Wolf the butcher) actually shimmying. "Do You Love Me?" is done slowly, with Tevye and his wife Golde (Scarlett Hepworth) seated together on a bench, sniping at each other at first but eventually admitting that they still might have some fondness for one another after 25 years of marriage. Late in Act One, just when we're in need of a glimmer of hope, Harry Turpin lends his distinctive voice to the "wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles" that he and his beloved Tzeitel can finally get married.
During the wedding reception's bottle dance, the Russian soldiers -- Steve Booth, Charles Gift, Kyle Traver and Jadd Davis -- contribute some distinctively Russian dance moves, only to break up the party (literally) at the command of the Constable (Patrick McHenry Kroetch). The pogrom has begun, and it's LaRosa's direction that makes it seems like such a shock in the middle of all the festivities. Still, it's the "Wedding Dance" sequence in which LaRosa designs his dance so that the dancers appear to be having the maximum amount of fun.
As Hodel, the second of Tevye's and Golde's daughters, Kubicek illuminates both the fun and the sadness of her character. As far back as the "Matchmaker" song, she's both practical and humorous while teasing her two sisters about potential husbands. In the Act Two opener, "Now I Have Everything," sung with her husband-to-be, Kubicek is enthralled -- yet while her fianc & eacute; sings, she looks on from her bench seat, as if remaining rooted in reality. Best of all, Kubicek turns "Far from the Home I Love" into a miniature scene of dramatic conflict. She conveys how she's torn between staying with her family and going off to join her student revolutionary of a husband, Perchik (Frank Jewett), who's been imprisoned by the authorities. As one of only three singers who have a solo in this show -- Motel and Tevye are the others -- Kubicek turns in an especially well-rounded performance.
Fiddler doesn't have the smiley-face ending of most musical fare: Families are split asunder more than they are united. One of the show's most intense moments occurs when Tevye must at last leave Hodel behind at the railroad station. At their farewell, Tevye prays that God will at least keep his child warm -- and LaRosa stages it so that, even if she's shipping off to Siberia, we see the father's wishes granted.
LaRosa uses scrim to create dream-like effects, most notably during "Sabbath Prayer" and the "Anatevka" finale, when groups of characters separate from the main action but are also used to comment on it. Dispersed groups join in prayer; three daughters are taken away by their husbands. Communities and families disintegrate, only to revive in unexpected ways and unforeseen places. As Anatevka is left behind and the line of refugees lengthens, still some small measure of beauty remains with them.
That's because, throughout the action, even during times of tribulation, the title character (Rile Reavis) follows Tevye about, strolling and playing, a symbol of beauty's brevity.
As they slog their way to new homes, Tevye and all the villagers maintain their dignity. The fiddler, moreover, still making beautiful music, joins Tevye and his family in their exodus. That guy with the violin may have looked unsteady up there on the roof, but at least he remains aloft.
As the Coeur d'Alene Fiddler comes to its close, so do our spirits.
Publication date: 08/14/03