Taking a closer look at Madison theater
May 9, 2014
02:55 PM
Stage Write

CTM's 'Fiddler' Just Fits

CTM's 'Fiddler' Just Fits

PHOTO BY TOM KLINGELE

Brian Mani (right) is a great fit as Tevye, both world-weary and hopeful.

It seems both surprising and oddly natural that 2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Braodway debut of Fiddler on the Roof, the now iconic musical tale of a poor dairyman and the challenges and change his family faces in turn-of-the century Russia. Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s classic is like a frayed and familiar shawl—comfortable and shopworn, but always good for just one more whirl. As a closer for Children’s Theater of Madison’s 2013–14 season (playing through May 11 in the Overture Center Playhouse), it just fits.

Brian Mani, better known to most of us for his work in Spring Green with American Players Theatre, is perfectly suited to role of Tevye, world-worn enough to easily inhabit the skin and tattered clothes of a farmer who thrives and smiles even though the deck seems perpetually stacked against him. His wily grins and quips work best when he’s conversing, with eyes raised to the Playhouse’s balcony, asking the almighty why He seems to have it in for him.

Because, let’s be honest, the man’s dealing with a lot—five kids, three of whom are old enough to cast their eyes toward relationships with men that fly in the face of firmly held Jewish traditions. His wife, Golde, (Amy Welk) is always on him about something, and his horse always seems to be lame. That Mani’s singing voice is solid but not jaw-dropping is a thing to be appreciated—since when, after all, are poor Russian dairy farmers blessed with pipes of gold?

The little town of Anatevka, evoked largely by painted etchings of buildings on the green wooden slats that frame the stage, sports a wide range of characters, and, for the most part, director Roseann Sheridan and choreographer Molly Rhodes do a good job of managing the stage rather than clogging it—no easy task when you’ve got twenty-plus actors dancing, celebrating and/or brawling. Fiddler’s filled with lots of big ensemble numbers, staring with the noisy and boisterous “Tradition,” all of which come off with a lot of energy.  

“Matchmaker” is especially spirited, with Rachel Holmes's Tzeitel wickedly skewering her siblings’ starry romantic dreams with a cold dose of reality. Both Holmes and Fiorella Fernandez, who plays second daughter Hodel—the one who falls for and follows the radical student Perchik (Stuart Mott)—imbue their romantic trials with life-and-death passion and emotion.  

The madcap highlight comes during “The Dream,“ the sequence that features the ghosts of Grandma Tzeitel (Mari Borowski) and Fruma Sarah (Meghan Randolph) who appear in Tevye’s bedroom to convince Golde to bless her eldest daughter’s marriage to the poor tailor Motel (Alex Brick). Not only is the singing here strong and emotional, but having the headboard spin off to become Fruma Sarah’s gravestone is an inspired touch of stagecraft.  

The show’s second act always pales slightly in comparison to the first—fewer familiar musical numbers and a lot of sadness, pain and loss for Tevye’s clan. Knowing that Mani and Welk played Teyve and Golde together thirty-some odd years ago adds an extra emotional dimension to “Do You Love Me?” (Not that it needs the assist.)  

CTM’s cast handles the changes with grim determination and grace, reminding us again why Fiddler’s such a canon fixture. As they stride off stage in silhouette and into their new lives, we’re left with a timeless sense of hope and triumph. And again, it just fits. 

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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