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Theater Review: 'Fiddler on the Roof' turns audiences into ceiling fans

As the Good Book says, a lively production such as “Fiddler on the Roof” is sure to bring down the house — which is not so good if you happen to be the fiddler.

Of course, the “Good Book” doesn’t actually say that, nor any of the dozen or so other corny maxims lead character Tevye attributes to it. Nevertheless, a production of the popular musical Thursday night did bring down a packed Jacoby Auditorium at Umpqua Community College.

Directed by Troy Pennington and Jannie Prawitz, “Fiddler” is the first of three productions in this year’s Oregon Musical Theatre Festival, now in its sixth year. The festival also features “Constance,” an Oscar Wilde play that went unproduced for more than a century, and the musical “Forever Plaid,” which open at 7:30 and 8 tonight in the Centerstage Theatre and Swanson Amphitheatre, respectively.

“Fiddler” is the story of a Jewish family in pre-revolutionary Russia. Its members are being torn apart by the looming threats of modernism and violent sociopolitical strife.

So much of the success of “Fiddler” depends upon the character of Tevye – played with considerable charm and verve here by Jack Holland – as so much of the story is told through his eyes.

Tevye’s folksy, one-way dialogues with the Almighty — and his numerous asides to the audience — serve as a Greek chorus of sorts in which he editorializes on life in the village of Anatevka.

However, it is music that suffuses his life and the lives of those around him that has continued to appeal to audiences for almost 40 years. In this respect, Holland’s Tevye excelled. Whether delivering a ruminative, understated rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man,” or belting out the bombastic “To Life” with Levi Wagoner’s Lazar Wolf, Holland’s barrel-chested baritone abounds with energy in the livelier numbers. He strikes a plaintive air in more poignant pieces such as “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

He is complemented beautifully in the latter two numbers by Diana Roberts, cast as Tevye’s shrewish, if devoted, wife, Golde.

Nor was the musical chemistry limited to these two characters. Laurel Scheleen, Sara Engle and Abigail Prawitz, cast respectively as Tevye’s elder daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, harmonized beautifully in Act 1 with “Matchmaker,” with Scheleen delivering a winning impersonation of matchmaker Yente in the song.

Prawitz turned in another virtuosic performance during her melancholy parting from her father in Act 2, singing “Far From the Home I Love” with poignant feeling.

For his part, Elliott Snyder gave the character of political dissident Perchik a welcome dash of goofiness to go with Perchik’s overbearing political persona.

Performances were made more believable by the versatile set pieces and evocative backdrops designed by Melody Schwegel. Lighting designed by Kelsey Anglin contributed to the ambience, while period costumes by Jere Bartley and wigs by Angie Wright helped place the characters as rustic peasants in early 20th-century Russia.

Music Director Jason Heald led an outstanding orchestral performance from the first lilting violin strains to the final resounding overture. The orchestration particularly shone in quieter, more reflective moments, though one wished at times the orchestra was larger — and louder — for the explosive choruses in songs such as “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “To Life.”

Among the choreography highlights was “The Dream” scene, in which Tevye fakes a nocturnal visit from his wife’s grandmother to provide him cover for having just approved their daughter’s marriage to the impoverished village tailor.

Few musicals range as widely across the plain of human experience as “Fiddler,” depicting the promise and joy of a wedding scene one minute and the wantonness of racial prejudice the next. From poignant partings to prayerful unions, we learn ultimately that it is not tradition that remains the constant in these people’s lives, but their stoic resilience in the face of calamity.

Or, as Tevye puts it:

“Every one of us is like a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.”

Christian Bringhurst is a former city editor for The News-Review.

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The News-Review Updated Jul 26, 2013 01:42PM Published Jul 30, 2013 10:22AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.