There may have been those who questioned the investment of some twelve million dollars in building a state-of-the-art theatre complex for the Lone Star College / Tomball campus. All such questions were brushed aside this month when the curtain went up on the summer production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the first major musical produced in this opening season of the magnificent and audience friendly theatre.
Soft, muted colors joined with such unusual architectural elements as air-conditioning intake panels made to look like elaborately carved wooden screens. With comfortable seating, every audience line of sight to the stage was a direct one, and we would soon sample the joys of the really flawless sound system in this age so often characterized by excess volume, crackling body microphones, and acoustics that distort the clarity of both songs and spoken dialogue (Sound engineer, Ryan Sirois).
Following the performance, my guests and I were even treated to the courtesy of a full backstage tour by cast member Jerry Williams.
With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, this Tony Award-winning 1964 play is based on the Sholem Aleichem tale, Tevye and his Daughters.
With brilliant direction here from Sherri R. White, the adventures begin under a dazzling full moon that shines down on the silhouette of a charming 1905 Russian village that seems to wrap its arms around the entire stage. There is a sprinkling of withering trees that hint of the struggle to exist in this difficult land, and of course this eye-pleasing scenic design (Frank Chuter) also included a rustic rooftop with a very talented fiddler in Alison Gardner on violin. It is then we first meet the stellar cast as the villagers emerge superbly singing “Tradition,” one of the most lushly haunting openings in all of musical theatre. With perfect lighting inspired by one of the show’s lovely songs, Mr. Chuter with Gary Cooper, and engineer, Matt Long, project a series of lovely sunsets and sunrises.
In this opening number there are gorgeous and authentic period costumes (designers, Ms. White and Emily Posch), and an elegant flow of movement from choreographer, Carey Perry Chuter, that immediately transport the audience to a land far away at the beginning of another century. Beautifully staged, it almost seemed to have the impact of a grand finale as it cast the glow of theatrical excellence over all of us fortunate enough to be in attendance.
Next we meet the play’s central character, Tevye, the village milkman, with a monumental performance here from Travis Bryant that is lusty, joyful, and really every bit as profound as the rich messages about tradition that the show continues to bring to generation after generation.
I shy away from announcing that certain actors “could have been on Broadway,” with a particular performance, but for Bryant in this case, that would certainly be true. From beginning to end, his endearing characterization of Tevye was nothing short of remarkable. How wonderful for him to be surrounded by an overall production that was equally remarkable.
The action moves to the cutaway of Tevye’s home, one of several simple and easy to move set pieces that keep the action flowing smoothly. Yente, the matchmaker (Patti Brownfield in a performance bubbling with joy) arrives to consult with Tevye’s wife, Golde (Carry Perry Chuter), about the marriage possibilities for her three eligible daughters: Tzeitel (Layne Roberts), Hodel (Krysta Keith), and Chava (Rachel Lagen). The girls burst into joyous song for a “Matchmaker,” that has a sweet naturalness of movement and perfect balance from the orchestra.
With the delicious wit of this script, Tevye’s frequent action-stopping talks with God are a delight, and he is skilled at making up needed scripture references that he always begins reciting with, “As the Good Book says…” Bryant literally owns the stage while beautifully delivering the milkman’s cheerful fantasy, “If I Were a Rich Man.” The local bookseller, Avram (Jerry Williams) passes by with the news that cruel pogroms were reported in distant places. A visiting stranger named Perchik (John Price) joins their conversation and warns that men must do more than just talk about these approaching dangers. He is an educated student and is invited by Tevye to tutor his children.
The action moves to the interior of the home for the exquisite “Sabbath Prayer” scene that beautifully captures the spiritual core of this play and makes the show so universal. The rich ensemble singing here gives one chills. I have never forgotten that scene from the original Broadway production when I saw Zero Mostel’s replacement, Paul Lipson, as Tevye. The scene clearly establishes the centrality of religious faith in the family, and seems somehow a continuing reminder of something important that our modern techno-world has too often lost sight of.
A raucous change of pace follows as Tevye meets in the tavern with a prospective husband for his daughter, Tzeitel. It is the wealthy butcher, Lazar Wolf (A shining performance from David Horn). Unaware that Tzeitel has her heart set on marrying childhood friend, Motel, the tailor (John Kenward), marriage to the butcher is agreed upon. Miss Gardner solos divinely on violin as the men of Anatevka drink and celebrate with rambunctious barroom dancing for the joyous song, “To Life.”
The resulting next day hangovers were fun to watch, but the shocking revelation that Tzeitel has pledged her love to Motel launches “Tevye’s Monologue,” a dramatic soul-searching for the milkman and a tour-de-force soliloquy for Mr. Bryant as Tevye finally relents to allow Tzeitel’s marriage to Motel. The couple sings and dances the lovely “Miracle of Miracles” in celebration.
The classic scene, “The Dream” follows as Tevye tries to convince Golde such a match is acceptable by waking her in the middle of the night to claim her late grandmother, Tzeitel (a frightening performance from June Becker), has come to him in a vision to warn that young Tzeitel must not marry the butcher.
Even the butcher’s deceased wife, Fruma-Sarah rises from the grave with the shrieking madness of a terrifying performance from Jeanean Dorsey. Eerily staged, the scene is great fun to watch as the marvelous and ghostly nightmare plays out with all the spookiness of Halloween.
So it is that Tzeitel is permitted to marry Motel in a charming wedding scene streaked with clouds. Mama Golde sings a glorious “Sunrise, Sunset,” that shows off Miss Chuter’s fine voice amid the haunting chorus from the ensemble. The lovely whirling wedding dances give way to the mysterious bottle dancers (Taylor Furman, Daniel Harrison, Justin Broughton and Jacob Murdock) who amaze one and all as they perform the traditional dance with bottles precariously balanced on their heads.
Act Two finds Perchik and Hodel determined to marry as he prepares to join the movement for revolution in Kiev. In “Far From the Home I Love,” Hodel sings longingly about the prospect of moving so far from the family, but the couple’s joy spills over as Mr. Price and Miss Keith sing, “Now I Have Everything” in sweet duet. In “Tevye’s Rebuttal,” the milkman must wrestle with his traditional values to grasp the idea of marrying for love. That precipitates one of the play’s most charming songs as he and Golde tenderly ask one another, “Do You Love Me?”
Tevye’s greatest challenge comes when daughter Chava falls in love with a Christian, Fyedka (Jake Foster) and plans to marry outside the Jewish faith. That conflict is sharply conveyed in the “Chava Sequence” that features a fanciful ballet flashback of Chava’s happy childhood, and then her shattering confrontation with her father. There is further conflict when the severe local Constable (Frank Chuter), instructs the Jewish townsfolk they must leave Anatevka. Their exodus, accompanied by the final song named for that village, wraps the audience in a warm blanket woven of love, tradition, and theatrical artistry of the highest level. Director White, with her talented cast and crew, had clearly created a masterpiece with this production.