By Colin Douglas
Especially these days, some NYC shows open and close so abruptly you’d never know they even existed.
But back during the Golden Era of Broadway, musicals like this gem, Fiddler on the Roof, with a book adapted by Joseph Stein from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics penned by Sheldon Harnick, set records for longevity.
Opening in 1964, this multiple Tony Award-winning musical became the first show on Broadway to play for more than 3,000 performances. The popularity of this show inspired a 1971 film version, countless international productions, many national tours and several Broadway revivals, including talks of a new production next year.
Here in Chicagoland, Light Opera Works Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller wraps up the summer directing and choreographing a dazzlingly beautiful production that’s not only faithful to the original but also manages to inject a few original elements.
Audiences universally love this musical (as demonstrated by the reaction opening night) but, as popular as it is, some may think they’ve already experienced enough productions of this show to last the rest of their lives. Both Paramount and the Marriott have offered their own wonderful productions within the past few years. But Hogenmiller’s latest offering is not only visually stunning, it’s filled with stellar performances, backed by Roger L. Bingaman’s pit of extraordinary musical artists—clearly a labor of love by everyone involved. That memorable, close-knit Russian-Jewish community, trying to survive in turn-of-the-century Anatevka, is brought to vivid life in Mr. Hogenmiller’s capable hands.
Bringing this beloved 50-year-old classic to the stage with new life, Hogenmiller has recreated much of Jerome Robbins’ exquisite, groundbreaking choreography. It’s performed with grace and athletic skill by this cast of 29 talented triple threats. From “Tradition,” the show’s stirring opening number that serves as a prologue and introduces the entire cast of characters (including the titular Fiddler Ryan Naimy, who personifies the town’s customs and conventions), to the rousing barroom anthem to simple joys, “To Life,” this show celebrates every plot development in song and dance. The gorgeous extended “Wedding Dance,” with its bottle dancers and its custom-changing boy/girl-partnered polka, the celebratory “Wonder of Wonders” and the balletic “Little Chavala” are each danced with Joffrey precision and artistry.
After playing so many supporting characters at this and other area venues, Alex Honzen has finally landed a leading role, lending his sublime vocal talents to a charming, modestly-played Tevye. It’s been a long time since such a rich, classically-trained singer has graced this role. Jenny Lamb, who at first would appear too young for the part, is perfect playing Golde, his shrewish wife, with just the right balance of warmth, humor and chutzpa. The married couple share a beautiful moment in a uniquely sung and staged “Do You Love Me?”
Their three oldest daughters, Tzeitel (lovely actress/singer Yael Wartens), Hodel (a beautiful, brilliant, multi-talented Katelin Spencer) and Chava (lovely singer/dancer Meredith Kochan) do their stage parents proud and are equally superb and heartbreaking. Their “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is charming and hummable, while Ms. Spencer’s “Far From the Home I Love” is sung with heartbreaking honesty and remains one of this production’s finest moments.
Neil Stratman plays a whimsical, yet moving Motel the Tailor that’s right on the button. Newcomer Tim Rebers makes his auspicious Chicago debut as Perchik, beautifully singing the underrated “Now I Have Everything” and demonstrating competent movement skills during the “Wedding Dance.” Creating a humane, especially three-dimensionally, empathetic Russian than seen in most productions, Billy Dawson displays his impressive high notes and choreographic talents as Fyedka. Rick Rapp is properly blustery and melodic as Lazar Wolf, while Marian Kaderbek makes a traditionally overbearing and lovable Yente, the Matchmaker. And Brian Zane (as the Rabbi’s son), Amanda Horvath (as a sweet Grandma Tzeitel) and Sara Stern (as an eerie Fruma-Sarah) bring zest and humor their cameo roles.
Special tribute must be paid to four outstanding technical artists whose work is especially excellent and noteworthy in this production. Adam Veness, whose artistic talents grow with each endeavor, has created an impressive, moving set inspired by Marc Chagall’s surrealistic paintings of Jewish Russia. His rich palette of blues, reds and earth tones are reflected in the vibrantly-colored costumes designed by Jesus Perez and Jane DeBondt. All of these treasures couldn’t be fully appreciated without Andrew H. Meyers‘ gorgeous lighting, especially noticeable in his ever-changing skies and during the ethereal, “The Dream.”
This sumptuously-produced classic of the musical stage unfortunately only plays for a limited time up in Evanston. It should not be missed. This production is a reminder, not only of the glory of Broadway’s Golden Era, but of the bounty of talent that resides in Chicago. For audiences who’ve never seen this classic musical, here’s a chance to experience the show as it was originally intended; audiences already familiar with Tevye the Milkman and his beautifully-told, heartbreaking story of survival, this is the production to see.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is presented through Aug. 24 by Light Opera Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston. Information and tickets ($34 – $94) are available online at www.lightoperaworks.org or by calling 847-920-5360. Additional reviews by Colin Douglas and information about other Chicagoland productions are found at www.theatreinchicago.com.