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To Life

by B.A. Nilsson on January 5, 2011

Fiddler on the roof
Sammy Dallas Bayes
fiddler on the roof

Tradition! John Preece and the cast of Fiddler on the Roof at Proctors.



When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964, musical theater was still supplying songs to the pop-music market. You couldn’t pass a radio without hearing it erupt into one of the show’s hit numbers. One of the last of the glory-days-of-Broadway musicals, it also featured choreography by Jerome Robbins that was a unique kinetic complement to the show’s Chagall-inspired look. All of this, plus Zero Mostel, gave Fiddler a then-unprecedented years-long run and four Broadway revivals.

In the original production, the role of Yitzuk was played by Sammy Dallas Bayes, who was tapped by Robbins to preserve the choreography of the show. He did so for the 1990 revival, as well as productions around the world. He’s even in the film version, as one of the Russian dancers. (More locally, he has directed many shows at Oneonta’s Orpheus Theatre.)

The current tour, playing through Sunday on the mainstage at Proctors Theatre, reminds us of the power of Robbins’ work in the bottle dance that climaxes the wedding scene. It’s a mixture of skilled movement, a beautiful stage picture and a good measure of surprise.
The young dancers put joy and precision into their work, characteristics that weren’t as focused in many other numbers. It’s one of the problems of challenging a non-Equity cast with work that requires considerable experience and enough individual talent to buoy the ensemble to the most extreme exuberance they can muster.
Which is why, I’m guessing, that John Preece’s characterization of Tevye seemed unusually muted. You can only go as far as the ensemble’s strengths allow. Preece has a considerable pedigree, with more than 3,000 performances of the show under his belt, half of them in the leading role, and he played it with a fine regard for the material, skillfully earning his laughs without overplaying, yet somewhat subdued at moments when he should roar.

Among other individual performers, Laren Nedelman and Andrew Boza, as Tzeitel and Motel respectively, gave a powerfully energetic performance of “Miracle of Miracles,” with the no-holds-barred energy lacking in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”

When the cast assembled to sing the anthemic “Sunrise, Sunset,” however, the voices blended so beautifully that the power of the number came through, effectively sentimental without seeming forced.
It’s the start of a sequence that culminates in a pogrom—this is czarist Russia, 1905, after all—performed under the authority of a constable (Bob Pritchard) who wrestles with his longtime friendship with Tevye. But Pritchard lacked the gravitas to inspire the expected fear, and the cursory upsetting of a few tables and chairs threatened to seem comical, which doesn’t make for much of a first-act curtain.
With the strong actor Frank Calamaro as butcher Lazar Wolf, the scene with Tevye that culminates in the song “To Life” played delightfully. Tevye’s wife, Golde, has to work against a larger-than-life character, and Nancy Evans played the role with a convincing sense of calm, never succumbing to the shrillness that’s a too-often-realized temptation.

Less convincing was Birdie Newman Katz as Yente, who squandered an end-of-show monologue with a cursory delivery. This is a show so burnished by the craftsmanship of its writing that every line counts, and needs to be honored as such.

David Andrews Rogers led the tiny instrumental ensemble, who did well. But don’t you miss the glorious sound of even a few strings and brass?

The above caviling notwithstanding, this was an enjoyable three hours—but what would be an outstanding example of community theater wasn’t the Broadway-quality experience Proctors promises. You take potluck even on Broadway, of course, but the bar has long been raised to a significant height.