The Play-Goer: Fiddler on the Roof

The grand classic turns intimate 

photo by Stan Barouh/ Piers Portfolio as Motel; Michael Harris as Tevye; Stephanie Ickniowski as Tzeitel.

      Fiddler on the Roof, which hit Broadway in 1964, set longevity records, won nine Tony Awards and has been performed thousands of times by high school and community theaters across the country. It’s usually a big musical with big casts. This month, Compass Rose Theater gives Tevye and his family a more intimate treatment that, in the hands of director Lucinda Merry-Browne, gives us a nice new perspective.

            You know the story. Poor dairyman Tevye tries to maintain the traditions of his Jewish faith despite Russian rule and five independent-minded daughters. His wife Golde pushes him to marry each off to a rich man, but he capitulates to their wish for true love. It’s a beautiful story made all the more resonant by Merry-Browne’s decision to stage it on the theater floor, with only three chairs and the audience on either side. Our physical and emotional involvement is heightened, and Tevye’s breaking of the fourth wall is the more effective.

            G. Michael Harris is as good a Tevye as any I’ve seen. He nails “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man,” as well as the lesser-known beauties such as “Little Bird.” His timing and physicality make the most of Tevye’s comic moments. Yet as he understands the need to sacrifice tradition in favor of his daughters’ happiness, his love for each is palpable. But no more palpable than his love for Golde, whose badgering frustrates him immensely and hilariously.

            Mindy Cassle is gold as Golde, holding her own during Tevye’s outbursts and also funny in her confusion as Tevye asks the musical question, “Do You Love Me?” With her fine soprano playing against Harris’ gruff baritone, that duet is a lovely rendering of the memorable song.

            Other highlights include a beautiful “Far From the Home I Love” by Anna Deblasio as Hodel, Piers Portfolio’s lively “Wonder of Wonders” as Motel the tailor and Tracy Haupt’s funny yet well-sung turn as ghostly Fruma-Sarah, the deceased wife of the butcher to whom Tevye has promised his daughter Tzeitel. As Tevye rues daughter Chava’s choice to love a Russian in “Little Bird,” Harris’ longing mirrors Tevye’s emotions: conflicted, yet firm. As Chava, Marina Jansen’s dance is poignant and beautiful. 

            Some of the cast of 14 take multiple roles. A few young women play men, and Kienan McCartney makes a nicely physical switch from the aging rabbi to the powerful Russian constable. But as a chorus, they are one, creating a big sound under the guidance of music director Anita O’Connor.

            Choreographer Andrew Gordon tailors dance numbers to the small space, and Marianne Meadows’ lighting is effective, transforming space from scene to scene.

            Spatial values change when the company makes its big move at month’s end, packing up mid-production for a new home on Forest Drive at Spa Road. But not much, according to artistic director Merry-Browne.

            “We designed this show so it can be lifted up with a spatula like a pancake and put down anywhere we need to perform it,” she said.

            Costumes by Renee Vergauwen are well matched to time and place, with the exception of Tevye’s Timberland-like boots and the rabbi’s fake black beard.

            I wish the program included musical numbers to see who sang what.

            But those small nits fade rapidly in the midst of a lovely performance all around.

            Compass Rose’s Fiddler on the Roof is a big classic told intimately, with the result a dynamic and touching tale made new.

Stage manager: Caitlin Weller. Properties: Joann and Mike Gidos. Two and one half hours with one intermission. Playing thru Jan. 21: FSa 8pm, SaSu 2pm, Th 7pm, $38 w/discounts, rsvp: www.compassrosetheater.org.