Curtain Critic: What ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ lacks in sincerity, it makes up for in catchiness

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Tevye, played by Eric Polani Jensen, performs in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Herberger Theater. (Courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company)
Tevye, played by Eric Polani Jensen, performs in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Herberger Theater. (Courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company)

Rating (out of four stars): ★★

The trickiest thing about “Fiddler on the Roof” is tradition. By “tradition,” I’m not only referring to the show’s choreography-heavy opening number, but also to the difficulty of interpreting a time-honored, well-worn piece of mid 20th-century Broadway in a way that deviates from the show’s original character.

Arizona Theatre Company’s current production, running through January 29 at the Herberger Theater Center, maintains much of that tradition.

In case you haven’t grown up listening to your dad sing every song from “Fiddler on the Roof” by heart, here’s a quick synopsis: A Jewish village in Imperial Russia experiences internal upheaval under the influence of the outside world, as its youth dare to rebel against the status quo. The musical centers on a poor milkman, Tevye (played delightfully by Eric Polani Jensen) and three of his five daughters, who refuse to consent to arranged marriages. The conflict is set against the backdrop of a growing sense of anti-Semitism in 20th-century eastern Europe. Known for its catchy tunes (I saw the show on Friday and still have “Sunrise, Sunset” stuck in my head) the show has resonated for decades, with the latest Broadway revival wrapping up in December.

ATC’s production is certainly entertaining, whether you grew up humming “If I Were a Rich Man” and attempting to dance with a bottle on your head (I’m guilty), or even if you’ve never met the Matchmaker. This production boasts a talented cast, a set with moving pieces and stellar vocals. Despite all that, for me some parts fell a little flat.

This was mostly in the acting. Although the major players (Tevye, Golde, and Chava were my favorites) gave good performances, some of the cast members at times seemed they were slipping into caricatures. For example, Jennifer Wingerter is an extremely talented performer with a captivating voice, but it was hard to take her portrayal of Tzeitel seriously—her expressions tended toward the overdone and her lines occasionally seemed anticipated. Kenny Metzger as Motel, Kevin Milnes as Fyedka and Patrick Shelton as Perchik (coincidentally, the three sisters’ lovers) all seemed to lack sincerity.

The show’s exaggerated characterizations might work just fine in other shows, but to me, it just seemed some of the actors were trying too hard to be funny. Fiddler, I think, has the potential to be funny, but only when performed sincerely. In short, I didn’t really fall in love with any of the characters.

Stage combat was also a bit unimpressive, which tended to make the Russian soldiers less intimidating, in turn making it harder to empathize with the villagers who trembled at the soldiers’ “demonstrations” (in which they mostly just knocked some benches over). A scene in which Perchik, a visiting Marxist scholar, was beaten by the soldiers was painfully unconvincing.

With the criticism out of the way, I can say that much of the show was quite nice to watch. The big dance sequences, especially “Tevye’s Dream”—in which Tevye and his wife, Golde (an excellent Anne Allgood), are greeted by a strange apparition as chorus members provide ghostly backup—and the happily long dance break after Tzeitel’s wedding at the end of Act I. A rotating set piece makes choreography more interesting. And I can’t forget the Fiddler himself, Jason Collins, a spectacular musician who glides around the background, perching on set pieces and occasionally interacting with Tevye.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the strange drapery with gaudy animal-human-hybrid drawings that remained hung up through Act I, but maybe I just didn’t get it. The rest of the set was more refined, with plainly-colored building fronts that contributed to a sense of isolation, and a simple train station that lent well to daughter Hodel’s melancholy departure from the village.

In summary, I’ll say that whether or not you like Fiddler on the Roof at the Herberger, I can guarantee you’ll be singing “If I Were a Rich Man” for the next week or so. There’s some accompanying footwork, which you may also learn to master. I’m still working on it.

“Fiddler on the Roof” runs through Jan. 29 at the Herberger Theater Center. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.

Contact the columnist at Faith.Anne.Miller@asu.edu.