Review: Fiddler on the Roof

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The Charleston Stage opened Fiddler on the Roof Friday night with accompaniment for the first time ever by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The lead role of Tveye was played by Charleston native and Equity actor John Fennel. Kinsey Labberton went to opening night and sent us this review —JS

Traditionally Traditional Tradition

By Kinsey Labberton

Tradition!

That’s the theme of Broadway’s classic Fiddler on the Roof and that’s exactly what we saw opening night. As is the custom of Charleston Stage, the theater company gave a traditionally solid show.

Fiddler won nine Tony awards when it was first produced on Broadway in 1964. The heart-wrenching story of a Jewish family living in a shtetl during the pograms in 1905, the show today is what’s commonly referred to in the theater biz as a revival; a sure-thing musical guaranteed to sell out seats and have few surprises.

Charleston Stage’s production, which featured the fulsome sounds of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (for the first time) in the pit, was just that.

Equity actor and Charleston native John O. Fennel plays the lead role of Tevye, the father of five daughters living in the village of Anatevka. He slowly opens Fiddler with the song “Tradition” backed by the 40-person ensemble. Maybe it was first night jitters; maybe it was collaborating with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra; but for some reason the pacing plodded along, which made the typical show-stopper, untraditionally lackluster. Luckily, Fennel, with his excellent comedic timing, managed to pick up the action through narration.

Teyve’s family, mostly played by Charleston Stage’s resident professional actors, were introduced. Daughters Tzeitel (Jan Gilbert), Chava (Nicole Nicastro), and Hodel (Autumn Seavey) sang classic “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” with typical aplomb. The three women, along with Susie Hallat who plays their mother Golda have the strongest voices in the cast.

But even with their pipes and 40 people to back them up, the sound was a problem. Microphones failed at random intervals, reiterating the recent argument that young actors aren’t being taught to project their voices. At one point, an off-stage conversation about wardrobe could be heard, spoiling the emotional climax of Tzietel’s wedding. It was a rather distracting interruption and another problem of choosing technology over traditional training.

The set was minimal, but enough to give the necessary illusion. Tevye’s house was a bare bones wall flown in from the fly space, above accompanied by a table and chairs. In fact, the set closely resembled other stock productions I’ve seen of this musical. A significant exception is the superb execution of Tevye’s dream sequence: a two-story tall vision of Fruma Sarah, the butcher's wife, comes to life with great effect. It was a high point, theatrically, of the evening.

Broadway standard that it is, it’s easy for theater companies to rest on Fiddler’s popularity and not provide anything that’s visually new or modern. Charleston Stage has produced a tried and true replica of every other production of this famous musical. That’s not to say that the company didn’t do a good job, but this critic would like to see something less traditional and more daring, especially with the Charleston Symphony on board.

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