Warsaw Community High School graduate Lucas Thomas is the fiddler in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Warsaw Community High School graduate Lucas Thomas is the fiddler in Wagon Wheel Theatre’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Having seen Robert Joseph Miller in many Wagon Wheel Theatre shows over the years, my favorite role of his has been that of Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.”
Then I watched him play Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” opening night Wednesday and now I have two favorite Miller performances.
The musical is at the Wagon Wheel through July 26.
Miller has never played Tevye before, though people have mistakenly thought otherwise. And when you get to see him in the role on the Wagon Wheel stage, you will wonder what took him so long to be cast in a role that he was born to play. Miller is a perfect Tevye and his strong performance raises the bar for all the other actors who share the stage with him.
Tevye is a devout Jewish father in the fictious town of Anatevka in Imperial Russia at the turn of the 19th century. Times are changing for the traditional working-class man, and with five daughters he has a lot on his plate to handle. Miller brings Tevye’s struggles to the life – he’s hilarious when the script provides some comedic moments, but also intense when Tevye’s frustrations get the best of him.
Many of the songs from the musical are so well known and easily get stuck in your head. Miller delivers “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man” in the most perfect way so not only do you end up singing along with him, you’re singing them long after the musical is over.
Then there’s his performance of “Sunrise, Sunset” with Kristen Yasenchak as Golde, Tevye’s wife. The beautiful song about parents looking back on their children’s lives, and often used in weddings, was memorably done by Miller and Yasenchak. For parents it could very well bring some memories back of their own.
Yasenchak, who has been awesome this summer in roles like Miss Andrews in “Mary Poppins,” is as strong and fierce as one could hope for the role. She has an exceptional voice, but as Golde she also shows how good of an actress she is. She is the perfect better half for Miller’s Tevye.
Of Tevye’s five daughters, three actually have plot lines.
Rachel Eskenazi-Gold, who was fabulous as Gypsy Rose Lee in “Gypsy,” plays the oldest daughter Tzeitel. She again gives a strong performance especially when she has to confront her father about not marrying Lazar Wolf (Kyle Timson), the rich butcher. Instead, she wants to marry Motel (Dan Smith), the poor tailor.
Smith, by the way, continues to impress on the Wagon Wheel stage as he just gets stronger and stronger with each role he gets. His rendition of the song “Miracles of Miracles” is well done, and he and Eskenazi-Gold have great chemistry on stage.
Tzeitel is the first daughter to make Tevye question what is happening to tradition.
The second daughter is Hodel, played by Monica Brown. Hodel and revolutionist Perchik (Matthew Janisse) fall in love. Instead of asking Tevye for permission to marry, they simply tell him they are going to and just want his blessing. Tevye is dismayed at the couple’s disrespect to the tradition he’s known all his life, but relents.
In the last couple of years, Janisse has always been on my list of Wagon Wheel “actors to watch.” Playing the idealist, Janisse plays the role like it’s an extension of himself. He and Brown perfectly sing “Now I Have Everything” together, and it’s a beautiful union of two actors who embody their roles well.
Chava (Alison Schiller) forces Tevye to draw a line in the sand of tradition when she wants to marry someone outside of her faith, Fyedka (the amazingly talented Jeremy Seiner). No matter how much his daughter loves Fyedka, Tevye can’t approve because of his faith. After Chava and Fyedka sneak off and get married, Tevye declares her “dead” to the family.
If “Fiddler” was modernized, the storyline of Chava could easily be that of a young woman who wants to marry someone of another race or another woman. Tevye would then be against it because his faith prohibits him from doing so even though as a parent he sees how much love his daughter has for the other person.
Schiller’s good performance of Chava makes it that much more upsetting when Tevye rejects her. Miller easily convinces the audience of Tevye’s love for his children, so when Tevye must reject one of them, you can see the pain on Tevye’s face.
The other two daughters in “Fiddler” are Shprintze (Brielle Fehlmann) and Bielke (Emma Heller).
The town matchmaker is Yente (Katie Finan). Finan has the role of a busybody down pat and audiences will enjoy her performance. Yente is a bigger role for Finan than she had as Mazeppa in “Gypsy.” Yet, whether she’s in a smaller role or a bigger one, Finan commands the stage whenever she’s on it.
The fiddler in the musical represents the struggle to survive through joy when life seems to be caving in around you. Weaving in and out of the show as the fiddler is Warsaw Community High School graduate Lucas Thomas. Thomas doesn’t have any lines, but plays the violin well and does a great job in his silent role.
While there isn’t a lot of scenery to chew on in the WWT production, once again the costumes by Stephen R. Hollenbeck transport the audience back over a hundred years ago. The attention to even the finest details – like the head scarfs or hats – make the costumes a very vital part of the show.
Another vital part of this show is the dancing, and there are two particular scenes where the dancing captures the imagination. The first is the bottle dancing in the wedding scene, and the second is the “dance off” between the Jews and the czar’s military men in the tavern. The audience Wednesday night loved both, but seemed to react more favorably to the bottle dance.
The only flaw of the night was a technical issue during “The Dream.” It was a distraction, but one that certainly will be taken care of by the next show.
Overall, for me, “Fiddler on the Roof” is the best show so far of the 2014 summer season. There are three shows left, but “Fiddler” has set the standard for them.
My rating of the show (out of four): 3.75.
Tickets range from $15 to $34. Discounts are available for college students and on designated performances for seniors. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org or call the box office at 574-267-8041.