Troika Fiddler (2012)

Just received a Facebook message from Barbi McGuire (who plays “Yente the Matchmaker” in the new Troika touring company). December’s holiday break is over & the Troika troupe is back on the road again, beginning the second leg of their nationwide tour tomorrow in Overland Park, KS.

Note a photo of Barbi (below) in her civies having brunch at Russian Tea Time restaurant in Chgo with Brooke Hills (“Tzeitel”) & Pamela Chabora (“Golde”) just before the Sunday matinee on November 27th.
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Here is my review of the new Troika Fiddler:

A new Fiddler on the Roof is heading towards our Auditorium Theatre at Congress and Michigan, and the “Broadway in Chicago” folks are flooding the airwaves with promo information. But times are hard and tickets are expensive. What to do?

The received wisdom is that the 1971 screen adaptation is “elaborately faithful and musically nearly complete,” so why not just pop a disk into your DVD player and start a sing-along at home?

Anticipating this question, I flew up to Canada last week to catch the new troupe at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan. Really! I did! And I took four people with me, two of whom had never seen Fiddler before (either on stage or on screen). We all had a great time, and we all urge you to go.

The truth is that Fiddler on stage is significantly different from Fiddler on screen. This is always the case when filmmakers adapt stories from other media. When a long novel like Up in the Air is adapted for the screen, many characters and plot elements must be eliminated; when a short memoir like An Education is adapted, many background details must be added.

Theatrical adaptations present the added complexity of acts. Most musicals, including Fiddler, have two acts, with Act One deliberately ending on a high because the creators want you to dash back to your seat after intermission. Sitting at home watching a DVD, you control the starts and stops, which has a huge impact on the flow.

But beyond these generic considerations, the one factor that most clearly differentiates “Fiddler on stage” from “Fiddler on screen” is historical context.

The first Broadway performance of Fiddler was on September 22, 1964. Americans were still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was about to be elected in the landslide that ushered in “The Great Society,” and the civil rights movement was the most urgent topic of the day. Watching the scene at the train station, where Hodel tells Tevye that she is going to Siberia to help Perchik do “the greatest work a man can do,” I’m sure many Jews in the audience said a silent prayer for Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (the two young Jewish men killed with James Chaney in Meridian, Mississippi only a few months before).

I’m also willing to bet that many of the women in the first Fiddler audiences had recently read The Feminine Mystique, published by Betty Friedan in February 1963. When Perchik tells Tevye “Girls are people,” this line directly echoes “Women are People, Too!,” the title of Friedan’s ground-breaking article in Good Housekeeping magazine.

But by the time Norman Jewison released his film adaptation of Fiddler in November of 1971, Richard Nixon was in the White House, and many Americans were of mixed mind about all this “’60s stuff.” Meanwhile, most Jews were still celebrating Israel’s triumph over the combined Arab armies vanquished during the “Six Day War” of 1968, and they were becoming more concerned about preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors.

Did people miss the scenes Jewison asked Joe Stein to delete when they crafted the screenplay together? Did people notice that new scenes were added? If they did, they never said so. When I lecture on Fiddler now, I have to introduce songs some people have never heard before (such as Yente’s comic number “The Rumor”), and I have to convince people that some of the dialogue on the Original Cast Album is not in the film. Take, for example, Yente’s memorable quip: “The way she sees and the way he looks, it’s a perfect match!” If you have the DVD, try looking for it. Surprise! It’s not there!

Context matters. Sitting in the warm Regina theatre last week watching Hodel follow Perchik to Siberia, I thought about reports of young people bundled up against the weather at “Occupy” sites all around the world. Some of Perchik’s speeches (“You can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in the world.”) sound like what I heard last night on cable television. What was old is suddenly new again.

The director of the current Troika production, Sammy Dallas Bayes, also directed the “Topol’s Farewell Tour” production that played at the Ford Theatre in 2009. Bayes was one of the original Broadway dancers, he trained under Jerome Robbins, and he believes himself to be the guardian of Robbins’ Fiddler choreography. Based on what I saw in Regina, he has selected many of his cast members specifically for their dance skills, and their onstage exuberance is phenomenal.

Steve Gilliam’s stage design, like the set he created in ’09, fully utilizes the vivid Chagall color palette Jewison shunned in his more “realistic” depiction of Anatevka, and Tony Ray Hicks has added details to his ’09 costume design which subtly individuate key characters who might otherwise get lost in crowd scenes. (Pay particular attention to Fyedka at the Inn and Yente at Tzeitel’s wedding.)

One of Fiddler’s high points is the famous “Bottle Dance,” and once again, Bayes has pit musicians come on stage to play in costume. When I met Music Director David Andrews Rogers at the Stage Door after the performance, I asked him specifically about the clarinetist. Yes, Rogers affirmed, he’s a great new addition. To my eyes and ears, he was like a Pied Piper, crooning to the dancers and seducing them on stage. Brilliant!

So should you go to the Auditorium Theatre to see the new Troika production? Yes! Jewish-American culture would not be what it is today without the ubiquitous 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof. But what’s on stage is not only “different” from what’s on screen, Fiddler on stage is quite simply one of the most magical, resonant, and meaningful musicals ever created. And no, you will never be able to watch it at home.

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Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (11/27/11)

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