One word – one theme – anchors “Fiddler on the Roof’s” portrayal of a Jewish family living in Czarist Russia at the end of the 19th century.
Sadly, the newly renamed Musical Theater of Santa Barbara sticks to the examples of past productions of this highly acclaimed work to anchor its latest musical. Maybe it’s been done in the name of tradition, but as “Fiddler on the Roof” clearly conveys, some traditions are more important than others. In the case of Musical Theater of Santa Barbara, it’s that the group has tried to imitate the film version of Norman Jewison’s legendary production too closely, overlooking any unique and original direction for this original.
This classic musical revolves around the life of a simple Jewish dairyman, Tevye (Lenny Wolpe), along with his wife Golde (Marsha Waterbury) and five daughters. Tevye is faced with attempting to marry off his three eldest daughters according to the Jewish traditions that have been in his family for generations. However, the traditions of Tevye’s ancestors are shattered as his three daughters stray from their father’s wishes – and tradition – and assert their independence during this changing period in history.
Lenny Wolpe’s portrayal of the dairyman Tevye is truly the jewel of the entire production. His enthusiastic nature and charismatic character draws the audience into the show. In contrast to Wolpe’s almost effortless portrayal of Tevye, Marsha Waterbury’s role as his wife Golde is somewhat inflated and resembles the movie portrayal a bit too much. The three daughters, Tzeitel (Rebecca Greenwood), Hodel (Cindy Robinson) and Chava (Cara Nicole Sigmuind) give great performances, lending an air of youth and independence to the performance.
The lighting, set design and sound of the production lessen the dramatic effect the show tries to deliver. The vocal talents of the cast members were very muzzled and at times overpowered by the music completely, while the cartoonish set design did not make a convincing depiction of a poor farm in Russia. Beyond this, the lighting cues were off and allowed the audience to see the transitions on stage and the unnecessary movements of the cast frantically trying to set up for the next scene.
The direction and choreography of the production attenuated the presentation of the production. Jim Alexander’s direction and choreography at times seemed chaotic. His reproduction of the original choreography by Jerome Robbins is done with only five members of the ensemble, and when the cast joins in, the numbers become disoriented. Along with the choreography, the direction of certain scenes, particularly the strange dream sequence in the first half, is a failed attempt to imitate Julie Taymor’s giant Mufasa puppet in “The Lion King.”
The Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera has attracted a great deal of media attention in its attempt to continue delivering quality theater experiences, despite the lingering fear of bankruptcy. Although renaming itself Musical Theater of Santa Barbara helps to alleviate previous connotations held towards this group, their first play of the season makes a few obvious changes clear. “Fiddler on the Roof” is opened with a loud, annoying pre-recorded announcement of upcoming performances. This isn’t Disneyland; it’s theater, and such tactics detract from the play about to commence. Also detracting from the overall quality – and this certainly isn’t the fault of Musical Theater of Santa Barbara – is the ill-designed Granada Theater. In it, one can’t help but notice that Chava’s boots are oddly out of place in relation to the other cast member’s shoes – most likely because the stage forces the audiences’ eyes to glance towards the feet of the actors.
“Fiddler on the Roof” boasts a strong script and musical score. This production is entertaining, but doesn’t up the ante. Tradition?
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs through May 20, Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Granada Theater in downtown Santa Barbara. Tickets range from $10 to $45; student, senior and group discounts available. For information, call 966-2324 or 1-800-366-6064.