Much of this 'Fiddler' doesn't soar enough to reach the roof

December 31, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Considering the fact that "Fiddler on the Roof" is a musical about changing traditions, it is surprising -- not to mention disappointing -- to see how little has changed in the production now playing a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House.

Sammy Dallas Bayes, a member of the original Broadway cast, has re-created Jerome Robbins' 1964 direction and choreography with the diligence of an expert copiest. The result can perhaps best be described by using an element of the set as a metaphor.

As it appears at the Lyric, designer James Noone's set includes two trees suspended from the flies. In what surely must be a mistake, neither tree touches the stage. However, these free-floating trees are just about the only aspect of the revival that takes flight. The rest remains stolidly earthbound, despite performances that are, for the most part, competent, and in the case of lead actor John Preece, rather striking.

Preece, a Marylander who has chalked up more than 500 appearances as Tevye, has clearly mastered the essential decency and likability of this poor but hard-working Jewish milkman. And although it is unfortunate that the actor fails to cut loose in the showpiece number, "If I Were a Rich Man," he brings a sense of overall conviction to the role that informs and enriches the character's love for his family as well as his good-natured chats with God.

Tevye's dilemma, of course, is that not only is he not a rich man, but somehow or other he must find husbands for his five daughters. Adapted by librettist Joseph Stein from Sholem Aleichem's stories, this turn-of-the-century tale is set against the backdrop of the Eastern European pogroms that drove Jews from villages like Anatevka, where "Fiddler" takes place.

Though Preece's performance essentially carries the show, he is ably supported by Guylaine Laperriere as his exasperated wife; James Roggenbeck as the tailor who defies tradition by pledging himself to Tevye's oldest daughter without benefit of a matchmaker; and particularly Shorey Walker as Teyve's middle daughter Chava, who breaks her father's heart by marrying outside the faith.

For every touching performance, however, it seems as if there is at least one ensemble actor sporting a beard that looks phonier than a Halloween costume. (The village rabbi is the worst offender.) In addition, a number of cast members -- including Pat Powers as the matchmaker -- seem uncomfortable with their characters' Yiddish accents. Such distractions contribute to slowing down the pace of a production, which, with a running time of nearly three hours, is already overly long.

On the other hand, as Tevye is fond of saying, it is a pleasure to again hear, in context, such classics from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's rich score as "Sunrise, Sunset," "Do You Love Me," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," and, of course, "Tradition."

Finally, it's worth noting that with "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Lyric and "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Mechanic Theatre, this appears to be an especially ecumenical moment in Baltimore theater. This critic would have found it refreshing if "Fiddler" displayed even a small percentage of the inventiveness of the new "Superstar." But judging from the warm response of the opening night audience at the Lyric, rehashing the old suits

plenty of theater- goers just fine.

THEATER REVIEW

What: 'Fiddler on the Roof'

Where: Lyric Opera House

When: Tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $20-$42.50

$ Call: (410) 889-3911

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