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If the traditional Broadway musical is your cup of tea, your cup runneth over with Fiddler on the Roof, now at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. The beloved, well-known classic about a tradition-bound Jewish community caught up in the turbulent changes of prerevolutionary Russia is a huge undertaking, but this production pulls the whole thing off with panache. Created from the stories of famed Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem, Fiddlermade a profound impression when it debuted 40 years ago, and the story's central argument, the struggle between tradition and a longing for freedom, certainly resonates today. That theme also reflects the playhouse's own identity crisis, as it wrestles with its conflicting impulses -- to expand and explore or to play it safe. Safe seems to be winning at the moment, as this Fiddler cleaves closely to the original production. Artistically it's as conservative as it can be, but at the same time, it's a paean to the old Broadway tradition of good-natured optimism -- and that's in somewhat short supply of late. There's a lot of zest and heart up on the playhouse stage, traits that lately seem to be lacking on Broadway itself.
The story tracks a Jewish shtetl in 1905 Russia, scratching out a living under the iron rule of the czar and coexisting uneasily with the dominant Christian community. The shtetl's world-weary milkman, Tevye, also has family dramas to attend to. With the help of the village matchmaker, Tevye's wife Golde has arranged a marriage for their eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Trista Moldovan), to the well-off village butcher (Marty Ross). Tzeitel, however, wants to marry the meek tailor (Brian M. Golub) instead. Tevye manages to resolve this conflict with some hilariously inventive manipulations. But then he faces a bigger problem when daughter number two (Genevieve Koch) falls for a Jewish radical (Christopher A. Kent), and an even worse one when daughter number three (Gwen Hollander) runs off with a Russian Christian (Sean Vigue). In this, the issue of tradition versus change is paired with another immigrant concern -- the threat of assimilation.
The production features an array of performing talent led by the company's artistic director, David Arisco, in the central role of Tevye the dairyman, who has his hands full with five daughters and a strong-willed wife. Arisco is well suited to the role, offering warmth, spirit, a strong singing voice, and a surprising physical agility for such a large man. He gets excellent support from the entire cast, in large roles and small, notably from the redoubtable Margot Moreland as his sharp-tongued wife, Golde; Elayne Wilks as the matchmaker, Yente; and Moldovan, Koch, and Hollander as the three marriage-minded daughters.
The original production won a slew of Tony Awards, but that doesn't mean Fiddler is perfect. Both musically and dramatically, it peaks before its first-act conclusion -- all of the major numbers, "Tradition," "If I Were A Rich Man," and "To Life," occur before the intermission -- and the expert, beautifully detailed staging of co-directors Barbara Flaten (who also choreographs) and Arisco can't overcome the wandering storyline in the second act. The plot shifts from romance and comedy to historical drama, as the community is threatened by czarist forces and faces expulsion from its village. In this, Fiddler reveals another dimension (and the real secret to its enduring appeal): the musical as creation myth, recounting the origins of Russian Jewish Americans, much as the M Ensemble's recent production, Strands, portrayed the African-American odyssey. In the end, the three married daughters scatter to the four winds with their husbands, but Tevye heads for America with his wife and younger daughters, pulling his cart like a male version of Brecht's Mother Courage. It's the picture of those two youngest girls tailing along that gives the show its final poignancy. These and millions of other bewildered children are headed for that great enigma called America to become the grandparents of many of those in the audience: Fiddler ends where a lot of American family histories begin.
Another Russian tale set in the same time period, I Take Your Hand in Mine, unwinds under distinctly different circumstances. The bare-bones EDGE Theatre, which has been producing in South Florida since 1995, has bounced from one performance space to the next, from South Beach to Fort Lauderdale to the Design District. Now EDGE producer Jim Tommaney has found a dandy warehouse/gallery space close by the latter. With traditional theater accouterments -- a lobby or even a sign -- lacking, there's something downright romantic about EDGE's guerrilla persona and Tommaney's quest to present challenging theater.
I Take Your Hand in Mine centers on the relationship between famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and his actress amour, later his wife, Olga Knipper; it is drawn from their extensive correspondence. These widely known love letters, which have been the subject of several stage projects, have the potential for emotionally engaging theater, but sadly, little such is in evidence here. The show is notable for two reasons. First is the audacity of its credited writer, Carol Rocamora (an experienced Chekhov translator), for claiming the title of author when that of adapter and translator might perhaps be more accurate. Second, Jim Tommaney is credited as director, when in truth little direction of any sort is in evidence. The production, in which the actors recite roles from hand-held scripts, is really no more than a staged reading and a cursory one at that. The conceit has some potential for in-the-moment electricity, but Leonard Krys as Chekhov and Ivelin Giro as Olga mainly stay seated, reading their roles in a flat, literary style. Krys, an experienced actor from Argentina, has a resonant voice and a stately demeanor, while Giro, an actress and international fashion model, offers poise and gentle warmth. But neither seems at ease with the text, which rolls along without much tonal variety or momentum. The performers do best at the end, in a touching, most Chekhovian moment, when the dying Chekhov on his final day drinks champagne with his wife and doctor. This fine sequence only underscores the paucity of what goes before.
Fiddler on the Roof By Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Barbara Flaten and David Arisco. With Arisco, Margot Moreland, Elayne Wilks, Marty Ross, Trista Moldovan, Genevieve Koch, Gwen Hollander, Brian M. Golub, Christopher A. Kent, and Sean Vigue. Through April 11. Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293. I Take Your Hand in Mine By Carol Rocamora, directed by Jim Tommaney. With Leonard Krys and Ivelin Giro. Through April 18. EDGE Theatre, 3627 NE 1st Ct; 305-531-6083.
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