Fiddler on the Roof

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Tradition dictates that any review of “Fiddler on the Roof” begin with the word “tradition.” So here goes.

Tradition.

The Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley’s production of the sentimental Broadway classic is a strong one, vividly portraying the religious life of early-20th century Russian Jews in a way that is honest and real. Their customs are not made to seem quaint or out-dated, even though they are far removed from life in 1999; rather, one gains a profound respect for their way of life. This, no doubt, was the musical’s authors’ intention, and it’s rewarding to see it fulfilled.

The story, for those unfamiliar with it, tells of Tevye (Richard G. Wilkins, also the director), a hard-working dairyman with a wife and five daughters. Most of the show deals with the three oldest daughters — Tzeitel (Beth Arnold), Hodel (Claire Wilkins) and Chava (Bonnie Beus) — and their attempts to marry the men they love, rather than the men who have been chosen for them.

This is the source of much personal strife for Tevye and his wife, Golde (Melany Wilkins, also musical director). Tradition dictates that the father chooses whom his daughters will marry — and now he’s supposed to let THEM choose?

Richard Wilkins is marvelous, carrying the show on Tevye’s weary-but-undaunted shoulders. His interplay with Melany Wilkins as Golde would be hard to fake; the two are married in real life, and they have a chemistry that can only come from experience. The emotion of the show comes through vividly through their performances.

“Fiddler on the Roof” has the potential to get bogged down in all the musical numbers and sentimental dialogue, but this production avoids those pitfalls with solid acting across the board and strong energy from everyone involved. Even the music, though pre-recorded, sounds crisp and vibrant. The wedding scene is just one of several sequences that are thoroughly engrossing, almost cathartic.

A few stand-out performances are worth noting. Justin Utley as Fyedka, the Russian gentile whom Chava falls for, has one of the best singing voices in the cast. Linda Garay-Bramwell’s matchmaker Yente is a comic treat, right up to the end. And Beth Arnold, Claire Wilkins and Bonnie Beus do everything they can with Tevye’s daughters — the roles aren’t written with much depth, but the actresses play them distinctly and professionally.

Marilyn May Montgomery’s choreography adds a lot, particularly in the big numbers. How she gets that huge cast to maneuver around such a small stage is a mystery, but she does it, and the dancers keep things lively throughout.

This is an example of how a strong cast with some enthusiasm can make all the difference in the world in terms of how enjoyable a show is. The last production of this I saw, at the SCERA Shell in Orem, was mediocre, causing me to think maybe the show itself just isn't so great. I still am not convinced that "Fiddler on the Roof" is absolutely brilliant, but the Hale Centre Theatre cast made it come alive more than I thought possible.

Sharp-eyed readers may recognize Bonnie Beus (she played Chava and is mentioned in this review) as being one of the people who wrote an angry letter regarding my disrespectful and non-worshipful review of "The King and I." She alleges in that letter that she has appeared in other shows I've reviewed, but off the top of my head, I don't know which ones they were.

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