Melissa Blease reviews the Bath Operatic and Dramatic Society’s Fiddler on the Roof, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 27 April
The award-winning Bath Operatic and Dramatic Society, founded in 1894, has a reputation for bringing memorable productions to the Theatre Royal Bath stage every year – and 2019’s outing further reinforces those credentials to the max.
Fiddler on the Roof – a musical written by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, loosely based on Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem’s story Tevye and his Daughters, first published in 1894 – originally took to the Broadway stage 55 years ago. It went on to break all manner of records, win multiple auspicious awards and spawn several revivals, including a 1971 film adaptation; only last year, it enjoyed yet another renaissance courtesy of legendary theatre demigod Trevor Nunn.
So why is this tale of a humble Jewish dairyman, his sharp-tongued wife and their five daughters -– set in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka circa 1905 – so enduringly popular? Because, perhaps, it’s so resolutely, innately human. The family’s struggles are sincere, their angst authentic, their strife substantial. Faith, traditions and heritage are under serious, significant threat, both physical (under an edict from the Tsar, the Russians are violently expelling Jews from their villages) and emotional.
As a result, Tevye has a lot of soul-searching to do, and he’s taking us on that quest with him. And with Tristan Carter in the role of tour guide for this production, we’re alongside him on that journey from the very first step. Carter is a supremely charismatic, likeable Tevye: whether basking in the spotlight to growl, shrug, purr and twinkle his way through one of the show’s best known songs (If I Were a Rich Man), placating his wife, remonstrating with his daughters, sharing a bit of banter with his mates or reasoning with God, he’s utterly engaging, from uplifting prologue to downbeat finale.
Barbara Ingledew as his spiky wife Golde is Tevye’s perfect foil; eldest daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava (Lydia Marsh, Shannon Croker and Izzy Atkin respectively) a captivating trio of strong-willed, confidently characterful adversaries.
But overall, Fiddler on the Roof relies heavily on an ensemble cast in order to scale the full heights of its reputation. In the Bath programme, there are 22 characters on the role call (tailor; butcher; student; innkeeper; rabbi; bookseller; beggar – each, and more, have their own significant part to play in the story) and a further 21 in the collective, alongside 12 children who share the little people’s roles across eight performances. Plus there’s 14 musicians in the live orchestra. If ever a production requires unswerving vocal talent, skilful choreography and a fully-consolidated, multi-generational ensemble both onstage and behind the scenes to make the magic happen, it’s this one – and BODS have, once again, conjured up a stunning theatrical experience.
The dance routines – including a startling exhibition of gymnastic skill in one particular number – are immaculate, and when those celebrated, familiar songs punctuate the dialogue, we’re treated to peerless renditions of a classic musical theatre soundtrack: the sweetly witty Matchmaker, Matchmaker, the wistful Sunrise, Sunset, the spirited, uplifting To Life and more, all either emotive, sensual, evocative or rousing as necessary, and all the epitome of an assemblage in perfect harmony.
Euphoria, melancholia, compassion, injustice, loyalty and love: Fiddler on the Roof presents us with a pekeleh of big issues to contemplate, wrapped up in a softly haunting klezmer refrain and delivered by mavens.
Main image: Dave Key-Pugh as Lazar Wolf and Tristan Carter as Tevye in Bath Operatic and Dramatic Society’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. Credit: Ken Abbott