A new Anatevka has sprung to life on the shores of the Fox River, and the cast and crew are getting thunderous applause from audiences and rave reviews from critics.
Are there any Jewish readers anywhere who need me to describe Anatevka? Well, just in case, here goes: Anatevka--"dear little village, little town"--is the setting of Fiddler on the Roof, one of Broadway's all-time greatest hits. A Ukrainian shtetl close to Kiev, Anatevka is where we find Tevye-the-Milkman, his wife Golde, their five daughters, and all of their neighbors. These beloved characters were originally created by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem in the late 19th Century and brought to the stage by Jerome Robbins almost fifty years ago.
"I have to fly to Chicago," I told my husband when I found out about the new production of Fiddler on the Roof at Aurora's Paramount Theatre. "The director is Jim Corti!"
Regular readers know that I am a Fiddler Fanatic, but in this case that is only half the story. If you had the good fortune to see Corti's fabulous production of Cabaret at the Drury Lane Oak Brook a few years back, then you'll understand why I couldn't pass up an opportunity to see his take.
Corti has a knack for turning familiar material into something not just fresh but startling. Under Cori's direction, designers transform empty spaces into unique physical environments with deep psychological and sociological resonance. Writing about Cabaret in 2009, I included a quote from Corti in which he told me his intention was "to visually convey that these vibrant people are trapped in a spider web." So despite the opulence on display inside Corti's Kit Kat Klub, the Drury Lane audience always felt a sense of impending doom.
Similarly, in his Aurora Fiddler, Corti embeds his cast members in the physicality of Anatevka, grounding them in its homes and shops. But the buildings are so flimsy that you don't even have to look through a window when you can just as easily peek through a crack. The result is that everything that happens on stage during this Aurora Fiddler happens in full view of all the other residents of "tumbledown, workaday Anatevka." Everyone knows everything and there is no place to hide.
This is in marked contrast to the Troika productions that played downtown recently, first at the Ford Theatre in June 2009 (billed as "the Topol Farewell Tour"), and then at the Auditorium Theatre in November 2011. Like the ill-fated Broadway revival of 2004, both of these stages were filled with trees!
I know I may sound overly analytical here, but these subtle stage effects actually make a huge difference. I complained about the trees way back in 2004, when I wrote: "Gone are both the cozy and the claustrophobic aspects of small town life, where 'tradition' is maintained as much by gossip and innuendo as by religious conviction."
Standing tall at the center of the stage, the true tree whose shoulders must carry the weight of every production, is Tevye. The night I was in Aurora, Tevye was played by David Girolmo. This was actually a fluke because Girolmo was originally cast as Lazar Wolf-the-Butcher (a role I've seen him play before). But Peter Kevoian was ill, so Girolmo moved up to Tevye, Matthew R. Jones (who isn't even in the playbill!) put on Lazar Wolf's apron, and everything went great.
This is a true tribute to the strength of Fiddler on the page (book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick), and also to Corti, who not only knows the material inside and out, but also has such command of the Chicago theatre scene that he stays in complete control come what may. No matter how many times I see it, I always find Fiddler thrilling, and so do the companions I bring with me (some of whom have never seen it live on stage before).
Most of the young performers playing the roles of Tevye's daughters and their suitors are not just new to the Paramount, but also performing in Fiddler for the first time. Corti's reach goes well beyond Chicago, and he has chosen well. Tevye's second daughter Hodel (Jazmin Gorsline) and Perchik-the-Student (Jim Deslem) both have very strong voices, and their duet "Now I Have Everything" (the main love song in Fiddler) is charming.
But this cast's standout is Brandon Moorhead, simply superb as Fyedka-the-Russian (the man who courts Tevye's third daughter Chava). In the playbill, Moorhead thanks his roommate for "allowing early morning opera rehearsals in their living room," and when you hear Moorhead sing at the Inn (during the "L'Chaim" number) you will thank his roommate too. Costume Designer Melissa Torchia found clever ways to make both Perchik and Fyedka physically distinct, so it is very easy for Aurora's audience members to spot each of them in crowd scenes. Brava.
With incredible chutzpah, Corti has also done something unthinkable for many Fiddler directors: he has made major changes to Jerome Robbins' choreography. This is particularly effective in the "Little Chavaleh" scene with lovely Brooke Singer as Chava dancing alone on the bare stage while Tevye sings plaintively from the right corner. But not to worry: the ever-popular Bottle Dancers at Tzeitel's Wedding are terrific, linked together very much as Robbins first envisioned them.
"Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?" asks Tevye at the beginning of Fiddler's famous musical prologue "Tradition." But really, what choice do we have? The world will always be a very scary place, filled with both natural and man-made disasters, but as every performance of Fiddler reminds us anew: "There, with my love, I'm home."
The last performance is Sunday (March 24), so follow this link now to the Paramount Theatre website, or call the box office immediately to order your tickets: (630) 896-6666.
Jan Lisa Huttner (aka "Tzivi")now resides in Brooklyn, but continues to write monthly film reviews for the JUF News blog.