By Kay Kipling
Nearly 50 years after its debut on Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof is one of those rare shows that you can’t imagine not existing—and extremely rare, indeed, in its near-perfection. Considering how many things can go wrong in putting together a work of musical theater, creators Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick somehow managed to avoid all of them.
In the Manatee Players’ second big production at their new home on Third Avenue in Bradenton, the community theater manages to avoid any major pitfalls, too (aside from an occasional sound issue). From the opening strains of the oh, so familiar Tradition, the audience is ready to dwell for a couple of hours in the tiny village of Anatevka, circa 1905, with Tevye the milkman, his family and neighbors, and to hear their story once more.
Director Cheryl Carty and choreographer Kelly Burnette make good use of that new, bigger stage at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, moving a full complement of Anatevkans convincingly around on ensemble numbers like the opener and also on To Life, Matchmaker, and the wedding dance that follows Sunrise, Sunset. They’re helped by Michael J. Kent’s relatively easy to move set, which is simple but effective in its portrayal of Russian village life a century ago.
But, returning to the “what could go wrong” question, obviously you can go wrong here if you don’t have a strong Tevye. Fortunately, Michael Bajjaly is up to the task of bringing to life this beloved character. His performance is a little less “ethnic” than some I’ve seen, especially on If I Were a Rich Man, which some actors tend to play more over the top. But it’s still a performance full of zest; he’s especially good in doing aggravated, when yet another trouble descends on his shoulders courtesy of one of his daughters or his wife, Golde (Players newcomer Sharon Albert, who’s a good match for Bajjaly here).
One occasional flaw in community theater productions of Fiddler can be weak actors in the roles of the daughters’ suitors, Motel, the tailor, or Perchik, the rebel student. Not so here; Abe Johnson and Nick Drivas, respectively, are totally believable in their parts, with Drivas especially strong vocally on his duet with another newcomer, Katherine C. Herbert, as Hodel on Now I Have Everything (not to slight J.D. Carter as Fyedka, who’s fine but has less to do). Herbert soars again on the plaintive Far from the Home I Love number later in Act II.
The cast is, in fact, excellent overall, with Players stalwart Meg Newsome having a great time as Yente, the kvetching matchmaker, and Marina Wright and Emily Arthur, as daughters Tzeitel and Chava, also shining. Rik Robertson as butcher Lazar Wolf and Dawn Dougherty as the scary Fruma-Sarah deserve some praise, too, along with musical director Bobby Brader and his orchestra, who provide solid support for the score and the singers.
This Fiddler is a thoroughly enjoyable close to the Manatee Players season, running through May 19. For tickets, call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.