Thursday, August 07, 2008

A 'rich' night of theater

'Fiddler on the Roof' comes to North Conway, N.H.'s Eastern Slope Playhouse

Following on the heals of the provocative “Cabaret,” the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is running nightly at 8 p.m. — except Monday — through Aug. 16 at the Eastern Slope Playhouse in North Conway, may seem like much tamer fare. While this is true, the two shows have more in common than at first glance.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is the Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company’s second show in a row to deal with persecution of Jews. “Cabaret” and “Fiddler” follow a similar structure, with the first act of each show being light, frothy and fun, but with an underlining danger that becomes overt as act one transitions into act two.

“Fiddler’s” ending is not nearly as dark as “Cabaret’s,” but both effectively use the musical-theater tradition to showcase serious themes in a way that still entertains and doesn’t trivialize the issues at hand.

Set in the small Russian town of Anatevka in 1905, the show focuses on the milkman Tevye (George Piehl) and his daughters. Tevye is part of a resilient Jewish community that quietly and happily co-exists with the gentiles in town, at least at the start of the play. That conflict is really secondary to a struggle between tradition and change.

Three of Tevye’s five daughters will marry by the show’s end, and each marriage represents a bigger challenge to the longstanding traditions of the Jewish community. Tevye is willing to bend to see his daughters happy, but even he has a limit. The show presents an intriguing debate over the importance and dangers that come with both tradition and change.

This production, directed and choreographed by Andrew Giant Linden, features strong performances and lively song and dance numbers throughout. In terms of the production’s design, the only disappointment is a rather lackluster set design by Brad Archer, but this is a minor fault that is largely rectified by the lighting design by Sara Houston.

This is Piehl’s show. He ably steps into the role originated by Zero Mostel on Broadway and Topel in the 1971 film version. Piehl makes it all seem so easy in what
appears to be an effortlessly charming performance. His one-sided conversations with God are delivered close to perfection, as are Tevye’s internal monologues. Piehl’s is also effective in the interactions with Tevye’s daughters. There is an especially affecting scene with Tevye saying goodbye to his daughter Hodel (Liz Clark Golson) at a bus stop.

The rest of cast is also solid. Rachel Brown, Clark Golson and Amanda Philips as Tevye’s three daughters with marriage on the mind strike just the right notes. Each actress shows chemistry with their respective matches and possesses charming and sweet stage presences.

Craig Holden as Lazar Wolf, the butcher, Shannon Connelly as Yente, the matchmaker, and Brendon Stimson as the Rabbi and other characters are also standouts. Holden and Connelly in particular provide some good laughs.

The weakest link in the cast is Grant Golson, and that only becomes apparent if you saw his performance in “Cabaret.” Golson, who once again is romantically paired with his real life wife Clark Golson, gives the same performance he did in “Cabaret” and reveals a limited range as an actor. His inflection, tone and delivery are nearly identical. Clark Golson, on the other hand, is just as charming as she was in “Cabaret” and doesn’t repeat herself.

The show is populated with great songs and there are several highlights. The classic “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is sung and danced with gusto and humor by Brown, Clark Golson and Philips. “If I Were a Rich Man,” another song that has slipped into our cultural lexicon, is sung with vigor by Piehl, although the staging could have been a bit more dynamic.

“The Dream” is both a musical and comedic high point of the show, with Tevye desperately trying to cook up a way out of a tight spot with his wife (Megan Thomas). “Do You Love Me?” features Tevye asking that question to his wife 25 years into their arranged marriage. The song is awfully sweet without giving the audience a toothache.
“To Life,” “Bottle Dance” and “Wedding Dances” feature some astonishing dancing that is truly impressive and full of infectious, joyous energy.

“Fiddler on the Roof” isn’t a flawless production, but, oy vey, what is? A little imperfection never hurt anybody, and at the end of the night this production will leave the audience entertained. What more can you ask for? Tickets are $27 and are available at the box office or by calling 356-5776.

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