There are times in musical theater when all the elements—performance, direction, choreography, musical direction, and design—come together to form an absolutely perfect whole. One of these times is now, in CLOSBC’s brilliant revival of Fiddler On The Roof.

Fiddler, based on the Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Jewish life in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution, opened on Broadway forty-four years ago, ran for nearly eight years, won nine Tonys and a tenth in 1972 for becoming the then longest-running musical in Broadway history, and has been revived on Broadway four times since then, most recently in 2004. With book by Joseph Stein (Zorba, Take Me Along, Mr. Wonderful)  and music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (who together also wrote the songs for Fiorello! and She Loves Me), Fiddler On The Roof provided Zero Mostel with his most iconic role and featured supporting turns by Bea Arthur, Julia Migenes, and Bert Convy, among others.

Like Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing, West Side Story, and Gypsy, Fiddler On The Roof was directed and choreographed by the genius that was Jerome Robbins.  Thus, it’s only fitting that a director who is also a choreographer helm CLOSBC’s revival, and in Jon Engstrom, Executive Producer James A. Blackman, III could not have made a better choice.

Unlike the controversial 2004 Broadway revival, which featured such dubious “innovations” as the daughters’ sponge-bathing themselves during “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” Engstrom respects the original staging, all the while adding his own subtle but effective touches. 

The director’s brightest and best decision was to cast Thomas Fiscella in the role of Tevye, the milkman of Anatevka. Unlike Mostel, and many if not most of the Tevyes who have followed, Fiscella is both character actor and leading man, the latter factor making his Tevye more than simply the sometimes cantankerous father of nubile young daughters who try his patience.  He is also a dynamic, charismatic, virile figure, and in scenes opposite the plained-down but still stunning Victoria Strong, it is easy to see Fiscella’s Tevye as a still vigorous husband to wife Golde. The gifted actor (who recently made a dramatic splash in Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune) proves to be a fine singer as well, and his renditions of such Tevye standards as “Tradition” and “If I Were A Rich Man” are as good as it gets.  Fiscella digs deep to reveal the many layers of this decent man whose belief in Jewish traditions is often put to the test by the changing world around him. When Tevye finally reaches the point where he can no longer say yes to “progress” and declares his daughter Chava dead, the effect is devastating.

Strong is a local CLO treasure who can effortlessly morph into roles as diverse as Anna in The King And I and Annie in Annie Get Your Gun.  Her still vital Golde is more than a match for husband Tevye, and Strong’s rich soprano makes “Do You Love Me,” her touching duet with Tevye, a special treat.

Supporting roles are equally well-played.  Arlene Thomas gets many laughs yet doesn’t overplay the stereotype as Yente, the matchmaker, who never fails to pocket as much bread as she can fit into her bag when visiting a potential client.  Stephen Reynolds is an imposing Lazar Wolf, teenage Hodel’s much too “mature” would-be fiancé, and a funny one at that.

As oldest daughter Tzeitel, the lovely Carly Nykanen eschews “musical theater acting” to powerful effect in an extraordinary scene in which Tzeitel begs Tevye not to force her to marry a middle-aged man she does not love. (She also does a spot-on Yente imitation in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”)  As Hodel, Michaelia Leigh, displays one of the most exquisite young sopranos you’re likely to hear in “Far From The Home I Love.”  Deidre Haren’s Chava confirms the promise that this captivating ingénue displayed as Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz. 

Richard Israel is a charmingly nerdy Motel, the tailor, and Jason Webb makes for a dynamic Perchik, the revolutionary, and each shines vocally, Israel in “Miracle Of Miracles” and Webb opposite Leigh in “Now I Have Everything,” the musical’s two jaunty (semi-)pop tunes. 

Other cast standouts include handsome Kelby Thwaits as Russian good-guy Fyedka (it’s a shame the vocally-gifted star of Phantom doesn’t get to sing here), the always engaging August Stoten as Mordcha, Leland Burnett as a somehow sympathetic Russian Constable, and Ben Hensley as Nahcum, the young actor vanishing into the skin of the crotchety old beggar. 

Fiddler wouldn’t be Fiddler without Robbins’ distinctive choreography, and Engstrom reproduces it to perfection, from the arms held up to heaven moves in “Tradition” to “Dancing With The Brooms” steps of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” to the dazzling “how-do-they-keep-those-bottles-on-their-hats?” male chorus line in “Wedding Dance.”

Engstrom also does a superb restaging of “The Dream,” Tevye’s strategy to convince Golde that her grandmother Tzeitel has told him in a dream that her namesake great-granddaughter should marry the tailor and not the butcher.  Costume designer Christa Armendariz and lighting designer Darrell J. Clark have the surrounding cast in Halloween-ready black-lit costumes and masks for this sequence, which features a cute turn by Truly Magyar as Grandma Tzeitel , an imposing one by a seemingly 10-foot-tall Jessica Gisin as first-wife Fruma Sarah, and some very funny cymbal crashes.

Perhaps the most visually stunning moment comes in Engstrom’s staging of “Sabbath Prayer,” which has Tevye’s family center stage, two other families stage right and left, while several others appear candle-lit through a scrim at various levels above Tevye’s.  Kudos again to lighting designer Clark for his gorgeous work here.

Clark’s lighting adds rich colors to the excellent (uncredited) Anatevka sets and Armendariz’s great Russian period costumes, and is particularly effective whenever Tevye breaks from a scene to address God. Recent Ovation Award winner John Feinstein does his accustomed fine sound design.

Musical director Dennis Castellano conducts CLOSBC’s superb 16-piece orchestra, which features another recent Ovation-winning musical director, Alby Potts, on keyboards.  (That’s the level of talent hiding down in the orchestra pit.)  

Completing the superlative cast are Allison Andreas (Shprintze), Sam Cavanaugh (Sasha), Chris Ciccarelli, Thomas Dolan, Brad Fitzgerald (Mendel), Brandon Halvorsen, Shirley Hughes (Shaindel), Elliot Kang, Kevin Kelly (Avram), Danny Longoria, William Loufik, Richard Malmos (Rabbi), Milinda Meehan, Natalia Panzarella, Dance Captain Joseph Shumate, and Tommy Stefanek.  Emili Lauren fiddles with the best of them as a bearded, androgynous Fiddler.

Fiddler On The Roof remains one of the great ones, a musical with laughter and tears, song and dance, and real substance. It hasn’t aged a day in sixty-four years, and in this absolutely couldn’t-be-better production, it completes an especially noteworthy CLO year with a smashing bang! 

Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.

–Steven Stanley
December 9, 2008
                                               Photos: Alysa Brennan

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