Director Jewels: Fiddler on the Roof at Spinning Tree Theatre {Kansas City Theatre Review}

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fiddler on the Roof at Spinning Tree Theatre {Kansas City Theatre Review}

Disclosure: I received press passes to attend this production at Spinning Tree Theatre. I received no other compensation and all views expressed are my own.

I have a long history with Fiddler. It was one of the first musicals that I saw onstage, when my piano teacher took me and a friend to a high school production an hour away. It was a movie I watched over and over again. And, it was my first community theatre production (ten years ago - oy). All that aside - I have to admit that the current production of Fiddler on the Roof, a Spinning Tree Theatre production playing here in Kansas City through May 10, moved me the most of all my knowledge and experience with the little Russian village of Anatevka.


Gary Neal Johnson as Tevye with Jonathan Schriock
as The Fiddler in "If I Were a Rich Man"
Photo Credit: Brian Paulette/Spinning Tree Theatre

The intimate Just Off Broadway Theatre provides an ideal backdrop for this stripped-down production of the musical that won three Tony Awards the year it opened on Broadway. Fiddler originally opened in 1964 and has been a consistent favorite in the past fifty years. The show has no major set pieces and is played on a thrust stage, with the actors bringing in props and set as needed. While I loved the stage dressing, at first glance I feared that the lack of more formal set pieces would be a distraction. I was quickly proved wrong, as more set would have certainly been a distraction from the raw emotion that was at the forefront of the entire production.

Fiddler on the Roof, based on the book Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem, tells the story of Tevye, a Jewish milkman who lives in Russia with his wife and five daughters in 1905. The piece's opening number, Tradition, introduces us to the culture of Tevye and his family and allows us to see how the traditions of the villagers of Anatevka are upheld, discarded, and persecuted throughout the story.

"Tradition" featuring the FIDDLER ON THE ROOF company.
Photo Credit: Brian Paulette/Spinning Tree Theatre

The production is seamlessly directed and choreographed by Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst. The show's flow is impressive. The space is small, but the professional cast members use multiple doors for entry and exit, weave through the choreography without a glitch, and make the whole process appear simple. A Fiddler moment that is always a treat is the bottle dance during the wedding scene near the end of Act I - the three performers in this piece placed wine bottles on their heads and expertly balanced them through a complicated routine. They nearly brought the house down on opening night - it was wonderful to watch!

"Sabbath Prayer" featuring the FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Company.
Photo Credit: Brian Paulette/Spinning Tree Theatre

The cast is led well by Gary Neal Johnson as Tevye, whose not-so-subtle sarcasm brings a laugh to those in attendance even in serious moments. Tevye's daughters, played by Kami Rodgers (Tzeitel), Sara Belhouari (Hodel), Megan Herrera (Chava), Callie Fabac (Shprintze), and Molly Moore (Bielke) are a delightful group of young women who shine both individually and together as a group of sisters. Each of the three older daughters is given the chance for a connection with the audience - Tzeitel, through her hopeful wish that Tevye might let her marry her love; Hodel, when bidding Tevye goodbye at the train station; and Chava, in her truly heart-breaking desperation for Tevye's approval of her life-altering choice. I actually lost count of how many times I had tears in my eyes (or, streaming down my face in serious ugly-cry style) during the production, but Chava's plea was the most emotionally charged moment of the two hours we spent in Anatevka and I will not soon forget that scene.

The production as a whole has an excellent cast. Motel (Bob Wearing) had a delightful boyish charm and Golde (Tevye's wife, played by Julie Shaw) gave a lovely portrayal of a woman who learns much about herself as her own daughters find husbands and homes of their own.

Standout songs from the production include "If I Were A Rich Man," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "Sunrise, Sunset", and "Do You Love Me?"

3 musicians (James Westbrook on clarinet,
Jonathan Schriock as The Fiddler, Joe Levens on guitar)

Photo Credit: Brian Paulette/Spinning Tree Theatre

Perhaps the most impressive element of the show was the Klezmer quartet, who doubled as band members and citizens of Anatevka. A good portion of the show's melodies were memorized by the talented musicians and played out as part of the story, with the musicians making their way through the onstage action as needed. A special shout-out goes to the fiddler himself (portrayed by Jonathan Lloyd Schriock), who made it seem like playing the intense melodies were as simple as walking down the street. The musicians include Angie Benson (accordian/keyboard), Jonathan Lloyd Schriock (violin), Joe Levens (guitar/mandolin), and James Westbrook (clarinet).

Tevye and Fiddler (Gary Neal Johnson and Jonathan Schriock) 
Photo Credit: Brian Paulette/Spinning Tree Theatre

Spinning Tree will present West Side Story, The Turn of the Screw, 13, and Amadeus for their 2015-2016 season. If you're in Kansas City, you don't want to miss this stellar rendition of a Broadway classic. Fiddler on the Roof plays now through May 10 - a Spinning Tree Theatre production at the Just Off Broadway Theatre. Tickets are available online and prices start at $27.50.

Disclosure: I received press passes to attend this production at Spinning Tree Theatre. I received no other compensation and all views expressed are my own.

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