On Stage

On Stage

Ojai makes old new again with Fiddler on the Roof

By Jenny Lower 08/08/2013

Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Fiddler on the Roof. Perhaps it’s no accident that both stories — featuring good-natured men who are mired in tradition and poised on the cusp of sweeping social changes, living less than a decade apart and each with a fleet of daughters — have become smash hits. Both stories provide a riveting lens for expressing human ambivalence over change, the pull of the past and the pulse of the future. Lord Grantham is definitely a rich man, but he and Tevye could have shared more than a few commiserations over a swig of vodka.

The Ojai Art Center’s production of Fiddler, directed by Tracey Williams Sutton, captures the charm and enduring appeal of this familiar tale with a large, joyous production. John Medeiros is a delight as Tevye, the poor Russian milkman spilling out his heart to God. His onstage warmth and impeccable comic timing blend perfectly with the character, making him utterly convincing as the befuddled patriarch, though he’s not alone. Medeiros’ performance is buoyed by strong character actors among his castmates.

Michelle Wagner makes an endearing counterpart as Golde, Tevya’s long-suffering wife, though she sometimes struggles to hit the high notes. As well-to-do butcher Lazar Wolf, Buddy Wilds is pitch-perfect and nearly unrecognizable (along with several of his neighbors) in what looks to be a homegrown beard. Ezra Eells and Carol Garramone add comic relief as a legalistic Torah scholar and the busybody matchmaker Yente, respectively.

The triumvirate of daughters and their suitors likewise make lovely and compelling characters. Kytriena Payseno and David Stewart receive the most story development as Tzeitel, Tevye’s dutiful eldest daughter, and Motel the tailor, the childhood friend whom she loves. Payseno’s teary pleas to Tevye to spare her an arranged marriage proves the impetus for much to come, and the pair’s “Miracle of Miracles” is full of all the wonder of first love. Audrey Pennington and Kieran Culliton share an unconventional courtship as the middle daughter and her Bolshevik revolutionary, while Haley Yanez brings emotional maturity to a challenging role as Chava, the third daughter, disowned for eloping with a dashing Christian (Kevin Lacey).

Fiddler Neva Williams provides onstage accompaniment for Tevye’s musings, backed by a three-man band. While few cast voices alone are standouts, the ensemble effect against live music is rousing and moving. Tevye and Lazar’s raucous drinking anthem “To Life” and the wedding scene both offer vigorous staging, complete with lifted chairs and bottle dancing for the latter. The dream sequence — Tevye’s effort to supernaturally justify to Golde his change of mind about Tzeitel’s marriage — features surprise staging too good to ruin, but Marisa Miculian is a knockout as the long-dead wife of Lazar Wolf, Fruma-Sarah.

Williams’ contributions also extend to construction; her humble set is an apt and clever take on the shtetl of Anatevka. With such a large ensemble on a relatively small stage, Sutton and choreographer Morgan Bozarth’s options are limited (certain songs are staged with stillness), but they avoid the ghost town problem. As a result of so many bodies, we feel the weightiness of these multiple generations anchored by their traditions — and we glimpse the eventual outcome of the persecutions that are driving Jews across Eastern Europe into places like Krakow and Warsaw, where we know what awaits their descendants.

For rich and poor, traditionalists and vanguards alike, Ojai’s Fiddler provides a little something for everything. 

Fiddler on the Roof, Ojai Art Center, through Aug. 11, 113 S. Montgomery Road, Ojai, www.ojaiact.org.


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