I have a soft spot in my heart for “Fiddler on the Roof”, now playing at Sonoma State University through February 16th. It was the first filmed musical I ever saw, and it was the show that gave me my first real opportunity to step on a stage (albeit a high school one) and perform. I also have a soft spot in my heart for the SSU Theatre Department, as I am an alumnus of it. I have not returned to it as an audience member for quite some time. So it was with these biases that I returned to the unrecognizable campus that is now SSU to check out their latest musical production.
Where to begin? On the one hand, it is a school production, so one must be considerate of the fact that these are actors/singers/dancers in training. On the other hand, it was populated with a couple of local theatrical veterans, so that causes expectations to be a bit higher than if it were a completely student cast. On the one hand you have the music and book of a Broadway classic, but on the other hand what good is that if you can’t hear it? On the one hand, you have a show that is as relevant today about the issues of religious and ethnic bigotry and the very meaning of “tradition”, but on the other hand you perform it in an ethnic vacuum. So many hands…
“Fiddler…” tells the tale of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman in pre-revolutionary Russia, and his struggles with the responsibilities that come with marrying off five daughters. Exacerbating these struggles are the challenges to tradition that his daughters bring to him in resisting the “old ways”. One by one, the daughters find their own way, (and spouse), and as Tevye’s familial traditions crumble, so does the precariously balanced community of Jews and Orthodox Christians. Change is coming, and it’s not all good.
The role of Tevye is portrayed by local actor/director/theatre professor John Shillington. While it’s great to see someone who teaches acting actually put themselves up on a stage, I don’t think Mr. Shillington was quite right for this role. Tevye is a force-of-nature, full of bluster and bravado, yet world-weary from years of tough labor and the challenges of poverty. He is in many ways broken, but unbowed by his fight to maintain some semblance of tradition. Despite all the setbacks, Tevye remains larger than life. Mr. Shillington’s characterization captured none of this, either physically or vocally. Mr. Shillington is a talented and skilled performer (who I quite enjoyed as the blind hermit in last year’s “Young Frankenstein”) who gives an oddly modulated performance as Tevye. “Bland” is not an adjective one should use in describing this character, but there, I just did.
As is expected in a University production, the student cast displayed various levels of talent. The young actresses playing the daughters-to-be-married (Sarah Maxon, Emilianne Lewis, Anna Leach – seen in title photo) gave the strongest performances, both vocally and character-wise. Jessica Rose (as Yente) shows promise as a comedic performer, but timing is everything, and she needs to work on hers. Christopher Gonzalez did solid performing work as Perchik, the campus radical, but struggled with his vocals. It will be interesting to see all of the show’s young performers develop over the next few years.
“Fiddler on the Roof” has never been a finger-snapping, foot-tapping sort of show. It is a deeply moving, hauntingly beautiful musical, whose heart reaches back to the good ol’ days, but whose head knows the inevitability of change. From its opening number on the value of “Tradition” to its mournful closing of a village (and traditions) gone (“Anatevka”), the score – music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick – is one of Broadway’s most memorable. SSU does its best to bring the score to life, and mostly succeeds, despite itself.
Sonoma State desperately needs to upgrade its sound system in Person Theatre. The live orchestra, under the direction of Lynne Morrow, did its job and did it well. It was a pleasure listening to them. The problem is that I would have liked to have heard the lyrics as well. With one notable exception, the cast was not miked for the show. Consequently, their voices were often overpowered by the orchestra. You simply could not hear them. And that’s a shame, because if ever there was a show designed to have its voices fill an auditorium, this is it. The ensemble pieces (“Sabbath Prayer”, “Sunrise, Sunset”), where the orchestra was matched by the power of 25+ voices, were the musical highlights of the show.
The lowlight of the show, unfortunately, also had sound issues. The one time a wireless mike was used was for “The Dream” sequence. Tevye’s telling of a nightmare that convinces his wife to accept an unarranged marriage is usually the show’s most boisterous and audience-pleasing number. A ghost appears and sings/screeches her warnings about an impending marriage. The sound was so badly handled that the entire scene was inaudible. Perhaps they can sell a chair or two from the Green Center, invest in a new, wireless sound system, and give the staff appropriate training and the performers the audio support they deserve. Future shows (and musicals, in particular) will be better off for it.
Since “Fiddler…” is a musical, there was also dancing in the show. Keeping in mind (again) that these are students, some dances worked well (the bottle dance) and some didn’t (the train wreck that was “To Life!”) Let it be said, however, that as someone with zero dancing ability, I always give credit to those willing to give it a shot on stage, regardless of the results. Keep it up, kids.
Finally, a note on the cultural components of “Fiddler on the Roof” – or the lack thereof. The show is set in a Russian village. The show is set in a Jewish community in a Russian village. Surely a greater all-around effort could have been made to acknowledge this (beyond the extensive program notes.) The minimalist set (by Samantha Corona) doesn’t really do it, and costumes (by Pamela Johnson) can only do so much. Most obviously, one wouldn’t get that by listening to the voices of the cast. I guess my point is that to have only the character of the Rabbi attempt anything like an appropriate accent seemed odd at best. For as long as this show has been in rehearsal, I think a greater attempt at genuine vocal patterns and manners of speech would have helped.
Vell, it voodn’t have hoit.
Fiddler on the Roof
A Co-Production of the Sonoma State University Departments of Music and Theatre Arts & Dance
February 6 through February 16th
Wed – Sun @ various times
Evert B. Person Theatre
1801 E. Cotati Ave
Rohnert Park, CA
Title Photo by Linnea Mullins
Production Photos by Jeff Thomas