Fiddler on the Roof

What makes “Fiddler on the Roof” such a long-time favorite is that, even though its old-fashioned Jewish characters struggling to keep their traditions in the face of rapid change are far removed from most of our situations, the play has an emotional center that is universal. We all have had to accept changes that were beyond our control, most of us have wrestled with some aspect of our faith, and all parents have wondered how their children grew up so fast.

The Villa Playhouse production of “Fiddler,” alas, keeps everything on the surface, never plunging into the emotions that should propel the action and keep the audience interested. The actors say the lines that indicate their feelings, but there is no sense that they actually have those feelings.

The result is that, while the large cast (40-plus people) sings and acts with vigor, the production is too silly — almost farcical at times — to take it very seriously. And at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it’s too long not to be getting something out of it.

Some aspects are meant to be funny, of course. Tevye’s (David Haenlein) conversations with God are charming bits, and his relationship with his wife, Golde (Joyce Booth), is only intended to be romantic or sweet when they sing “Do You Love Me?” (which in this production really is a nice moment). And of course many songs like “To Life” should be extremely joyful and light-hearted.

The problem here is that nothing is ever less than light-hearted for more than a few moments. When Motel (Brian McFadyen) and Tzeitel (Esther Covington) approach Tevye about the possibility of breaking tradition and getting married without use of a matchmaker, the scene is sitcom-y and goofy. So when Tevye has his monologue and decides to let them go ahead, the decision seems too easy. Where was the huge internal struggle? Where was his balancing his love for his daughter with his devotion to tradition? The lines indicating such a conflict were there, but there was no conviction behind them — plus we’d just seen three minutes of silliness immediately proceeding it, and the change in attitude is too abrupt.

Basically, this is “Fiddler on the Roof,” played as a comedy, with brief bursts of seriousness that don’t work because they’re surrounded by too much levity, and because the actors keep being superficial, even when they’re saying deep things. If that suits you, fine. I think it betrays the original intent of the show.

As usual at the Villa, lighting is a problem, too. Even when the stage is “fully lit,” the sides are dark, and much action takes place there. They need to realize, also, that there are ways of signifying “night-time” besides just turning off most of the lights and making everyone act in the dark. For as light as this show is figuratively, it’s far too dark literally.

The singing is strong throughout, and the actors are generally committed to what they’re doing; there is some real talent here. This is community theater, and I don’t mean to sound like I’m judging it by Broadway standards. But even community theater can avoid the pitfall of trying to create humor where it doesn’t belong, and thereby failing to convey the show’s real emotions.

Is there a cooler name in all of theater than Lazar Wolf? I think not.

You write a negative review, you get an angry letter. This one was e-mailed to me at work from someone who identified herself only as "Pat in Provo":

I was so disappointed with your Fiddler review that I had to write. My family went opening night, and while there were some technical difficulties (microphones not on), we LOVED it! The parts were well cast and the enthusiasm was contagious! Your reviews of plays at the Villa Playhouse are predictably critical. It seems that only the children actors please you. We appreciate community theater and feel Villa Playhouse does a great job on a limited budget. You do it a disservice with your "Snide" [har! get it?] reviews!

(I don't understand why some people still think they're being clever calling me "snide," as a word-play on my name, when I already write a column called "Snide Remarks," indicating I've already thought of that joke. The column runs in the same section of the newspaper as the theater reviews, too.)

I responded to Pat in Provo and gently pointed out that in the last seven Villa production I've seen, I've praised grown-up actors on a number of occasions, and given high praise in general to a few of those shows. "Predictably critical" is pretty inaccurate; read the reviews for yourself. ("Storm Testament" doesn't count because it was so long ago, and because it was authored by Satan.)

Pat in Provo replied by saying well, yes, it's true I have complimented some other actors besides just children, and, yeah, maybe my reviews aren't ALWAYS critical. But then she said this: "Still, I think your reviews should make people want to see the shows. Your Fiddler review definitely does not make people want to see it."

She actually said that. In an e-mail. In English. In those words. "REVIEWS SHOULD MAKE PEOPLE WANT TO SEE THE SHOWS." I was so flabbergasted, I couldn't even respond. In fact, I was so stunned I accidentally deleted the e-mail, which I really wish I hadn't done.

"Reviews should make people want to see the shows." Man oh man.

For a contrasting point of view, see the following comments posted below this review on the old website:

Eric, Thanks for being candid and honest in your review. This review makes me as an actor want to do more homework in approaching my characters. I must admit that I have been enjoying the company of those in the cast and having fun doing the show, when perhaps, I personally should have worked a little bit harder to raise the level of professionalism. The lighting of the show, alas, is a problem with every show to cross the Villa stage. The board of directors would be wise to take the promotional steps to build audiences and thereby earn money for new and better equipment. If there is a benevolent soul out there with the desire to help out, a grant SPECIFICALLY for lighting and sound equipement would be a heaven send!!! But if the board relies on the hope of a grant, we'll continue to see poor lighting!
Brian McFadyen

A low point in the history of civilization came when Marilyn Brown, co-owner of the Villa Playhouse Theatre, publicly accused me, in an Internet discussion group, of costing the theater $2,000 with my review. Her reasoning? That's how much more money the show would have made, were it not for all the people who read my review and then decided not to see the show.

She did not release the figures on how much money I MADE for the theater when I gave positive reviews.

This is ridiculous, of course. For the most part, if people want to go see a show, they're going to. A negative review won't sway them. There might be a few people who are on the edge and for whom my negative review helps them make the final decision, but I seriously doubt there are $2,000 worth of those people.

But even if my reviews did influence that many people, well, so what? Do a good show, and you'll get a good review. Do a not-so-good show, and you'll get a not-so-good review. But to blame the critics when you lose money takes a lot of nerve. It's the sort of thing that makes a theater critic decide to just not review shows at that theater anymore.