North Carolina State University and University Theatre have opened their new season in a newly redesigned Stewart Theater, giving director John McIlwee the chance to really show off what his students can do in a large cast production. McIlwee chose Fiddler on the Roof as the first show of the 2015-16 season, presenting a cast of over forty students from a variety of majors in the largest production of the show this reviewer has ever seen. Using a backdrop of slatted wooden homes and a mobile set of three floats to represent the various buildings in the small village of Anatevka, McIlwee has directed a stunning production, with full-scale dances and dynamic singing voices.
In any production of Fiddler on the Roof, it is essential that there be a truly superb actor/singer to portray the central character of Tevye. McIlwee is fortunate to have just such a performer in the role, Areon Mobasher, who not only looks the part but has a superb baritone voice that is big enough to match this larger-than-life character. Mobasher is joined onstage by twenty named characters and another twenty ensemble players, who comingle divinely to present the citizens of this small village on the eve of the Russian Revolution.
The play centers on the marrying off of three of Tevye's five daughters. Tevye's wife, Golde (Fara Marin), expects things to go traditionally in such matters, using a bona fide matchmaker, Yente (Natalie Sherwood), to choose appropriate mates for Golde's brood. But things do not go smoothly for Tevye and Golde: Their eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Sondra Rogal), breaks with tradition to choose her own mate, Motel the Tailor (Tony Courville). This causes uproar within the village, especially since Yente had chosen for Tzeitel another man, Lazar the Butcher (Isaiah Lewis). Middle daughter, Hodel (Molly Riddick), falls in love with a stranger in town, while youngest daughter, Chava (Helena Boldizar), marries outside the faith, a move that saddens and bewilders her father.
The plot is thickened by several different characters and supported by a tremendous score of eighteen songs, ranging from the full-scale opener, "Tradition," to the singular and iconic solo by Tevye, "If I Were a Rich Man," which Mobasher handled with the requisite skill and physical complexity of joy and contemplation. When he is alone, Tevye speaks directly to God, as if He were a friend and confidant. Mobasher was a tour-de-force, giving full-throttle voice to all of Tevye's many different moods. Tevye lives his life wide open, and Mobasher's ability to handle both his rages and his acceptance of what life throws at him made Tevye a joy to watch. From "If I Were a Rich Man" to the gentle and sad "Chavaleh (Little Bird)," Mobasher brought a nuanced and complex characterization to life onstage.
The multi-talented ensemble brought the village of Anatevka into focus with fine characters and some truly inspired dance. Choreographer Viki Atkinson put the dancers through their paces, accurately recreating traditional dances and dazzling us with her dancers' prowess. The most dynamic of these many dances was the sublime Bottle Dance, in which four men danced traditional and physically-demanding steps while balancing wne bottles on their heads.
Bringing an enormous production like this to the stage requires more than a massive cast. To get everything and everyone in place and on time takes a mammoth backstage crew, ranging from dressers and stage managers to set builders and costumers. This production of Fiddler has compiled a crew of over fifty. In addition to these masses, an intrepid eight-member orchestra, which sounded much bigger, gave a full-throated backup to the super singers and dancers in the cast. Bandleader Julie A. Florin leads the octet and Jack Pashby makes a cameo performance as the intrepid Fiddler.
The overall production by the University Theatre is unbelievably gigantic, rivaling a professional presentation and doing so with skill and aplomb. The myriad of student performers, ranging from freshmen to seniors and crossing a multitude of majors, have brought to bear a singular passion for the art, and come together in a complex and polished performance. There did not seem to be a single misstep in the entire production, which nearly filled the vast Stewart Theatre with appreciative and energetic patrons. Fiddler on the Roof is a sterling example of what a student performance can accomplish; the passion and skills evident in this show rival professional houses in presentation, characterization, and performance.
Fiddler on the Roof continues through Sunday, October 4. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.