CENTERVILLE — Fiddler on the Roof is back in Utah, and CenterPoint Legacy Theater is the latest venue to offer their interpretation of this classic story to Davis county audiences. Unfortunately, when a show is so well-known and as oft-produced as Fiddler is, it is difficult to find a fresh approach. The book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock are as well known as any in the history of American musical theatre. But although this production, directed by Addie Holman, has some lovely moments, overall it suffers in comparison with more iconic interpretations and more polished performances elsewhere.
Tevye (played by Lane B. Willden), is a poor milkman blessed with five daughters, a sharp-tongued wife, and a lame horse. As he pulls his milk wagon through the village on his daily rounds, he frequently talks to God about his life, his problems, and his insights. He is a loveable character, and his charm is strongest when he connects to the audience directly. Willden has some good instincts and makes some attempts to engage the audience, but falls short on finding the real emotion in his lines and drawing me into his world. Mostly Willden’s performance felt rushed, and he struggled to find his own rhythm and interpretation of this iconic role. As Willden the evening progressed, he swung between some great moments and mediocre moments. For example, “Rich Man” seemed like an attempt to copy every movement and inflection from Topol’s film performance, which was irritating. The scene with Hodel at the train station was poignant, and the song “Chavelah” was touching, but the scene before it felt forced. On the one hand, Tevye’s dream was probably the most entertaining of the evening, with a true surprise twist. On the other hand, “Do You Love Me” was not, as Tevye and Golde had little emotional connection. With a little more thoughtful, careful direction, and time to really pull out the most from this character, and to make it his own, rather than a copy of Topol, Willden could be a good Tevye for years to come, but it’s not quite there yet.
In contrast was Jonathon Crittenden’s performance as Motel the tailor, which was fresh and true and authentic in every way. Crittenden gave the strongest performance of the evening, and Willden’s best moments on stage were when he was interacting with Crittenden. Motel’s joy when singing “Miracle of Miracles” was genuine and indisputable, and his utter bliss was infectious and made me cheer for him for standing up for himself and his right to a little happiness, even if he was poor. Motel and Tzeitel (Melissa Alston) worked well together in establishing their relationship right from the start, which made their scenes very enjoyable to watch.
The strongest overall element of the show was the music direction by Julie Waite. Thanks to Waite’s work, the soloists in Fiddler on the Roof sounded beautiful. Hodel (Emily Wells) was stunning when she sang “Far From the Home.” I’ve always disliked Perchik’s song “Now I Have Everything,” and have been relieved that it often gets cut, but when Kyle Allen sang it, I suddenly understood its appeal. Fruma Sarah (Chantelle Bender) was another appealing vocalist, with tons of personality and flair. “Matchmaker” was a strong song and introduced the five sisters well. Tevye’s daughters all had distinct characters and their relationships to each other were also well-defined. They obviously teased each other and had fun together and loved each other. They looked like sisters I’d like to have, and I applaud Waite, Holman, and the performers for creating such strong sibling bonds on stage .
The ensemble numbers were also lush, with full harmonies and a gorgeous sound. “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset” were truly lovely, but one the whole, the ensemble could have added so much more to the show: more energy to the village scenes, more tension in the bar when the Russian boy bumps into Tevye, more panic when they are told they must leave, more pathos when their world is dismantled and broken apart. The ensemble often seemed stagnant and unresponsive, as if they were unsure how to react in various situations, so many did nothing. And a general note, it’s not necessary to affect an accent in a show where everyone speaks the same language. It’s confusing and disconcerting to have some characters speak in an accent, and others sounding distinctly Utahn.
Another strength to the show, although more uneven, was the choreography by Joan Bowles. Some of it was fresh and offered a new twist on very familiar steps. “Tradition” and “Matchmaker” were both entrancing dance numbers, as was “Chavelah,” which showcased Kristi Shaw as Chava, and told a clear story about sisters growing up and leaving. But other dances were messy and mushy (“To Life”), and some of play was underrehearsed (like the Russians and the bottle dance) or was way too long (like the wedding dance).
The set design by Tammy Coleman was beautiful and established the time and place of the piece well. I especially loved the detail of the stenciled cutouts that ran the length of the proscenium arch. The shapes and designs gave a distinctive Russian/Jewish feel as they intertwined. The costume design by Tammis Boam and Wendy Nagao was also well done, and I appreciated how the various characters were all visually distinct: Jew, Russian, constable, rabbi, mamas, daughters, etc. My one complaint is that once Tzeitel gets married, her hair should be completely covered from then on, but she appeared for the rest of the play with her hair hanging down her back like an unmarried girl, which would never have happened in her village.
The story of Tevye and his family has resonated with audiences through the years. CenterPoint Theater’s production of Fiddler on the Roof has some nice moments and will delight its target audience. It runs long and feels sluggish at times, but if it tightens up and finds its rhythm, it will be a pleasant show to take the family to see.