No matter how many times you’ve seen Fiddler On The Roof, you have never seen a Fiddler like the one currently playing at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, under the masterful direction of James O’Neil.

Set designer Thomas S. Giamario has converted the entire Rubicon space into a mini-Anatevka, the stage jutting out far into the area normally occupied by front center seats, surrounding walls painted with Marc Chagall images of pre-Revolutionary Russia, various rooms of Anatevka homes hidden behind walls and alcoves until Ward Carlisle’s exquisite lighting reveals families at “Sabbath Prayer” or in celebration of blessed events (like the arrival of tailor Motel’s Singer sewing machine). “The Dream” sequence, with Grandma Tzeitel and Fruma-Sarah returning from the dead, becomes a three-dimensional, surround sound experience.  During Motel and Tzeitel’s marriage ceremony, audience members sit virtually right under the wedding canopy.  This is truly a “You Are There” Fiddler On The Roof.

Fiddler at the Rubicon combines the intimacy usually found only in a 99-seat theater with a cast of nearly thirty, half of whom are members of Actors’ Equity, the caliber of ensemble you’d normally expect to see only at the Ahmanson or the Pantages.

The production even has a real, honest-to-goodness Fiddler, violin virtuoso Nuvi Mehta, performing Jerry Bock’s melodies live on stage.

As Tevye, milkman of Anatevka, Jay Brazeau is the kind of actor said “born to play the role,” milking (no pun intended) every laugh from Joseph Stein’s book and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics.  Cuddly at times, imposing, even intimidating at others, Brazeau gives a bravura performance in the tradition (again no pun intended) of the great Tevyes who have gone before him.  “Tradition,” “If I Were A Rich Man,” and “To Life” are all given exceptional renditions by the superb Brazeau.

In the role of Tevye’s Golde, Eileen Barnett bats three for three, following her stellar turns as Molina’s devoted mother in Kiss Of The Spider Woman and as the brassy owner of a Catskills resort in Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Downplaying her beauty under Golde’s drab scarf, Barnett brings warmth and humor (and her lovely voice) to the role, her duet with Brazeau of “Do You Love Me?” a particular delight.

Amy Hillner gets the plum role of Tzeitel, the oldest of Tevye’s five daughters, and acts and sings the heck out of it. Her emotional plea to Tevye to allow her marriage to Motel could wring tears from a stone, her spot-on imitation of matchmaker Yente is a delight, and her vocalizing during “Matchmaker” is glorious.

Chad Borden is an appropriately nerdy yet entirely lovable Motel, Leslie Henstock a lovely-as-can-be Hodel, and Robert Adelman Hancock a dashingly handsome Perchik.  All three shine vocally, Borden in “Miracle Of Miracles,” Henstock in “Far From The Home I Love,” and Hancock duetting (with Henstock) in “Now I Have Everything.”

Chicago teen (and Rubicon good-luck charm) Lauren Patten once again pays a welcome visit to Ventura to play youngest daughter Chava (wonderfully as might be expected), revealing a rich, beautiful singing voice sadly not given its own solo.

Josh Jenkins is a sweet, sincere (and tall!) Fyedka, George Ball a suitably grumpy Lazar Wolf, and Joseph Fuqua adds real gravitas to the role of the Constable.  Helen Geller is as funny and real a Yente as you’re ever likely to see.  Natalie Nucci steals every second of her brief scene as Fruma-Sarah and proves a great team-player as a villager. Larry Lederman (in a dual role), Robert Barry, Tom Beyer, Betsy Randle, and Steve Perren provide fine support.

Spanky Reynoso, in addition to his great hair and make-up design, shows off an amazing tenor in the ensemble along with Jessica Gordon, who also understudies Hodel.

As the bottle dancers, choreographer extraordinaire Lee Martino (recreating Jerome Robbins’ original choreography to perfection) could not have chosen a more talented quartet than Chad Michael, charismatic Oskar Rodriguez, dance captain Jamie Thompson, and (skateboarder by day, musical theater pro by night) Jeff Johnston (also understudying Fyedka). Child performers Heidi Bjorndahl, Olivia Fleming, Sophia Montano, Alex Breschard, Max Breschard, Kalen Kasraie, and Xander Young complete the cast.

Musical director Lloyd Cooper conducts and plays keyboard in the offstage six piece band, which sound like twice that many.  Shon Le Blanc’s costumes are, not surprisingly, absolutely right for the time and setting. Jonathan Burke’s sound and T. Thersa Scarano’s props are equally fine.

A production as all-around superb (and truly unique) as this Fiddler On The Roof comes along rarely indeed, and many if not most performances are sure to sell out. Don’t let the drive to Ventura prevent you from seeing a Fiddler the likes of which you’ll probably never see again. It’s well worth the journey.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
March 21, 2009
Photos: Rod Lathim

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