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Thursday, July 23, 2009 06:03 pm

Muni’s Fiddler another solid production

Steve Kaplan as Tevye.

For fans of live theater in Springfield, attending The Muni’s new production of Fiddler on the Roof is a bit like seeing the James Bond movie Casino Royale — we’ve heard there’s a new guy in the lead role and we’ve seen him in other productions… but we’re not sure how he’ll do as our favorite character.

For almost four decades, only two men (Jack Duffy and Barry Weiss) have played the lead role of Tevye at The Muni. This time, the part went to veteran local actor Steve Kaplan. Kaplan, who is on stage for almost each of the show’s 160 minutes, must set the tone and drive the production — and he does both jobs nicely.

Fiddler on the Roof and other standard, well-known musicals are often hard to stage because they rarely offer the director an opportunity for customization. While that’s true of director Chuck Hoots’ current adaptation of Fiddler, the problem may be more of a blessing than a curse. Hoots and his crew do well to sneak a few new elements into an old favorite. One missed chance, though, is in the large dance numbers. Sure, the bottle dancers (Jon Bee, Eric Groeteke, Tyler Ott and Mark Podeschi) are captivating, but when the most exciting move in a Russian bar-dance is a cartwheel, something’s missing. The oversight is more than atoned for by the remarkable and towering ghost of Fruma-Sarah during a truly clever and original staging of Tevye’s dream in which Roger Carr’s lights bounce around dark fog as zombie Russians rule the stage in Thriller-like fashion.

Fiddler’s real strength, however, may be paradoxical: it’s a good show because there are no standouts. All the actors, from the children’s chorus all the way up to the headlining roles, are good. Acting, singing, dancing, directing and technical aspects are mostly strong. The fact that no one steals the show (or needs to) means that this production is allowed the space to come alive in a natural way.

A capable cast of impressive size fills the stage from the onset. Hoots and his experienced staff (Laurie O’Brien, assistant director; Mike Rogers, producer; Bill Bauser, Jr., vocal director; Luda Olifiruk, choreographer; Sue Warren, musical director; and others) dress the stage with constant motion, and their actors find just the right rhythm to sustain a long show.

Most in the audience probably know the story. It’s 1905 in a small village in Tsarist Russia. Tevye, a milkman, works to maintain his beloved traditions although non-traditional suitors pursue his three eldest daughters. As an anti-Jewish movement threatens to destroy their village, Tevye and his family must leave their homes in search of a new way of life.

Tevye’s five daughters perform “Matchmaker.”

The character of the Fiddler on the Roof serves as a metaphor for people “trying to scratch out a little tune without breaking [their] necks,” something perhaps especially relatable in our current economic climate. In this production, however, the Fiddler does not fiddle but inexplicably mimes his way around the instrument as real music is produced from the orchestra pit. Why not find a fiddler who fiddles, or put one of the two listed orchestra violinists on stage? It’s a small concern, but worth mentioning because a fiddling fiddler would be less distracting, could be used more and might have a more effective interaction with Tevye. It is the name of the play, after all.

Another key to success for any popular show is chemistry, which is not lacking in any of this version’s many relationships. Not only are all five sisters (played beautifully by Jenna Nickelson, Sarah Halford, Molly Smith, Hailey McNamara and Janna Schorfheide) likeable and good together, the three who marry each play well against their men (strongly portrayed by Grant Molen, Lucas Snow and Jacob Deters). Additionally, Loretta Hess coaxes laugh after laugh from the audience as the matchmaker Yente despite some small flubs here and there. Nevertheless, the best relationship to watch is the one between Kaplan’s Tevye and Deb Rudis’ Golde. The husband and wife cover their enduring love with acerbic wit as they play an intense game of one-upmanship. Kaplan and Rudis each showcase a talent for comic timing and charm that would make Ralph and Alice Kramden proud (or even jealous).

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be stated that Steve Kaplan was my childhood dentist and Chuck Hoots was my high school principal. However, I would never let those small facts color this review — being sent to either office was equally painful.

Fiddler on the Roof runs through July 26 at The Muni, 815 E. Lake Shore Drive. The play begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8-12.

After five years at Warner Brothers, Zach Baliva left to produce the feature film My Name is Jerry. He was active in Springfield Theatre Center and Muni productions during the 1990s.

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