By Richard Ades
Otterbein University Theatre apparently is giving Fiddler on the Roof to John Stefano as a going-away present. The professor, who’s retiring after 24 years in the theater and dance department, had long dreamed of playing the iconic dairyman, Tevye.
It’s a wonderful gesture on Otterbein’s part, but it wouldn’t have been surprising if the result had been a production that fell far short of the Tony-winning musical’s potential. After all, you can’t build a show this massive around a single actor.
Thankfully, Otterbein’s theater program is sufficiently rich in talent that its production has several stirring moments.
One of them comes shortly after Tevye introduces us to his Russian hometown, a Jewish community that, in the pre-revolutionary political climate of 1905, is finding life increasingly precarious. Gathering together with their families for the Friday night meal, Tevye and other villagers sing the beautiful Sabbath Prayer.
It’s a heartfelt scene that underscores the message of Tradition, the anthem that opens the show: These humble folks cling to their beliefs and rituals to give meaning to lives mired in poverty, pain and struggle.
Also stirring is the wedding scene in which Tevye and wife Golde (Aubree Talley) marry off the first of their five daughters. Its highlight comes when four dancers perform difficult moves while carefully balancing bottles on their flat-topped hats. Bravo!
In general, director Lenny Leibowitz’s production is at its best in large numbers involving singing and dancing. Otterbein has enough fine vocalists and dancers to carry off Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s glorious anthems and Stella Hiatt Kane’s acrobatic choreography, and rousing accompaniment is supplied by the ample-sized orchestra performing under Lori Kay Harvey’s baton.
Many of the individual actors also sing beautifully, including Lauren Kent, Natalie Szczerba and Abigail Isom as Tevye’s daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. Their early trio, Matchmaker, is an engaging exploration of their mixed feelings toward the ancient tradition of arranged marriage.
As for Stefano, he’s not the strongest vocalist who ever hauled around Tevye’s milk cart, but neither is he the weakest. Yes, his voice sometimes falters, but it does so in a way that makes the character all the more endearing.
Stefano also shines during the humorous moments in which Tevye complains to God about his sad lot in life—or to the audience about his loving but fear-inducing wife, Golde. The actor’s comic timing is spot-on.
It’s in the more dramatic moments that the Otterbein production sometimes lacks finesse and timing. One example is the aforementioned wedding scene, which peters out long before it’s interrupted by an attack that foreshadows new problems for the local Jewish community.
Another example: Connor Cook is appealing as Motel, the shy tailor who’s afraid to ask Tevye for the hand of his oldest daughter, but the moment in which he finally works up the nerve is rushed through before it has a chance to sink in.
Other problems can be traced to overacting (Dana Cullinane as the over-the-top Matchmaker) or underacting (Andre Spathelf-Sanders, who barely registers as Chava’s non-Jewish suitor). And though Tally strikes the right balance between scariness and warmth as Golde, neither she nor her makeup artist make a serious attempt to disguise the age difference between her and the actor who plays her husband. As a result, it’s hard to believe Golde and Tevye’s marriage really has endured for 25 years.
The production has many strengths beyond those I’ve already mentioned. They include supporting players Connor Allston as Perchik, the radical student who woos Hodel, and Jack Labrecque as Lazar Wolf, the lonely butcher who sets his sights on Tzeitel. Rob Johnson’s nonrealistic scenery and T.J. Gerckens’s lighting also are striking.
Overall, though, this staging of the musical tragicomedy is more effective as a musical and a comedy than it is as a tragedy. Most productions of Fiddler on the Roof are three-hankie affairs, but one should be enough this time around.
Otterbein University Theatre will present Fiddler on the Roof through April 16 at Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.