Friday, July 27, 2012

Review by Brit: Fiddler on the Roof, or "It doesn't have Topol or Harvey Fierstein, can it be good? Well, actually..."

We don't often review stage on this blog or in our show. In fact, the only time we have as of yet was when the stage production of "Company" starring the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert was touring cinemas, discussing the production  in an episode of the Void Zone. (Way back at episode 4, when we were still cutting our teeth on this review idea.)

And I'm delighted to get to do it again, as my first directing experiences were all in the realm of the stage, and it delights me to get to watch it every chance I get.

But before I start my review, let me give the reader not located in Farmington, NM some context about our colloquial theatre scene.

For years we've had three primary sources of theatre. First, San Juan college, a community college, has a theatre program; Theater Ensemble Arts, an amateur theatre group; and Sandstone Productions, the only professional theatre we have here. There were several splinter troupes and indie groups that have put on different productions, but the prior three were the mains ones, and even those involved in the smaller productions have probably worked with at least two out of those three.

And for those of you reading this that are local, and especially if you know me,  please don't read any sort of derisive undertones toward my view of the theatre scene; there isn't any derision or disdain present here. I have nothing but love for the plight of theatre in this town, and I emphasis the word plight as all theatre producers here struggle. This is not a theatre town, I'm sad to say, and it's very difficult to get an audience here.

So anyone who has ever put on a play successfully in this town-- Pat yourself on the back. I seriously mean that.

Now, on to the show in question, which was put on by Sandstone Productions.

"Fiddler on the Roof" is a tricky play. It has an interesting structure and much of the narrative is driven by the presence of the central character, Tevye. It's one that, if the director and actors don't strike an appropriate balance of depth, seriousness, and humor, the pacing and general feel of the piece will fall flat.

Personally, there are three points I think any director has to contend with that will really make the play work:

1. The actor playing Tevye must have exceptional presence and must be able to convey incredible depth of emotion.
2. The chemistry between Tevye and his daughters is utterly and completely vital to the success of the production.
3. The ever present dread of the emigration forced by the Czar needs to be telegraphed to the audience frequently.

The usual performance related items that will feature in any production aside, these three things, in my estimation, will determine the strength of this production.

The director of this production, Theresa Carson, is a very able director. Until recently, she was also the director of San Juan College's theatre program, and she brings a lot of energy to any project she does. I've seen this person work, and she puts in every thing she can, regardless of what she's doing in that project. I have an amazing amount of respect for the way she directs and handles projects.

In her college productions, she manages to contribute her own vision for a show while still giving the students enough room to explore the material for themselves.

As a professional director, she injects that aforementioned energy that I think the actors really respond to and carries over in the performance in a big way. You never get the feeling that the actors are bored, which is an unfortunately frequent occurrence in community theatre. As well, she really gets her players dialed into who their character is, what their back story is, and, most importantly, what their all-important motivation is.

In fact, in spite of Sandstone being a professional gig, the actors don't get the kind of rehearsal time you would see in a Broadway production or any sort of equity theatre. They have to get this together quickly, and sometimes, especially with the choreography of the dance numbers, this is detrimental. Many dance sequences are plagued by quite a bit of imprecision, which is owed to the fact that they have to turn rehearsal to performance in all too short amount of time.

As for the actors, Tevye is going to always get the attention, and John Garza doesn't disappoint. People have an expectation to see Topol's iconic performance of the character in every outing, which is unfair. In this case John Garza comes close to matching the presence, but definitely has a bit of his own spin on the character, which I really appreciated. His would have been my favorite performance had it not been for...

... the younger performances. I often have a hard time with the younger actors in a stage production because their performances have a tendency to feel forced instead of natural. Happily this is not the case here. At all. I'm sure this speaks somewhat to Carson's direction. But I want to take nothing away from those who played the daughters and the suitors to the daughters. I smiled ear to ear every time these kids (who range from actual teenagers to people roughly my age, so aren't kids at all) had lines or musical numbers. They did such a good job and I was just giddy with delight at the depth of character they demonstrated. They were so in tune with their characters that it was just absolutely delightful to watch them. Shout out to Paul Stewart as Motel and Stephanie Storhaug as Tzeitel; perfection.

Linann Easley plays Tevye's wife, Golde, and all too often, people fall into the trap of just giving her attitude, but not necessarily any of her other qualities. Linann, however, is much better than that. Yes, she does display requisite "attitude" but it always had a greater, underlying strength that brought a lot of power to her performance. This balanced portrayal gave yet another layer of humanity to the feel of the entire piece.

And now, to Yente. The first thing I do when viewing a production of Fiddler is to check who is playing Yente, and feel a bit of sadness for that actress because what they have to do. Yente is my least favorite character, and I feel for those who play her, because they have so little, IN MY OPINION, to work with. I know she's an audience favorite, but I feel like she's too two dimensional. Happily, I saw that PJ Gillen would be playing her. I've worked with PJ a few times, and PJ has a very natural sense to her performances, even when she's doing a caricature or playing a funnier character. Especially in Yente's denouement, I felt PJ added a lot of warmth.

My biggest complaint, aside from some issues with choreography that I already mentioned, were tech elements. It's outdoor theatre, so there are many things to contend with, but the there were tons of sound problems. I've never worked with Sandstone, so I don't know how they work their mics, but there were many miscues with the sound that really pulled me out of the production. I don't know if this was a sound system problem or human error, but it was very distracting.

That aside, this was a great show, and everyone did a great job with the material. This is one of my favorite musicals, and I was happy to see the local crowd really hit this one out of the park.

Rating: 4 stars our of 5

Brit W.

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