Incredible talent makes 'Fiddler' magical theater

Published September 15, 2006

A few times in a life of going to the theater, you'll find your seat, the lights will go down, and pure magic happens on the stage.

Such is the case with Fiddler on the Roof, playing at Richey Suncoast Theatre. Fiddler itself is a great show, with beautiful music and a story that will rip out your heart. It's so good, it's hard to mess it up, but at the same time, it's so good that it's darned near impossible to do it justice.

But put James Poe, a truly incredible talent, in the lead role of Tevye, back him up with seven extraordinarily gifted singer-actors in the main supporting roles, charming character actors, a chorus as wonderfully blended as a perfectly baked cake and Joan Geschke's terrific nine-piece orchestra, and you get a night of theater that you'll remember for a long, long time.

Director Judy Poplawski must be living right to have attracted so many talented actors. And the three people who cast the show were truly inspired, sometimes casting against expectations (remember, this is a show most people have seen on stage or in movies many times) and having it work out better than right.

Fiddler, of course, takes place in 1905 in the little Russian village of Anatevka, where Jews live a life as precarious as a fiddler perched on a roof. Their neighbors are Gentiles who follow the orders of the czar (and probably their own inclinations) and rough up the Jews from time to time just for sport. The story revolves around the dairyman Tevye, his wife Golde (Mary Anderson Osher) and their five daughters, three of them of marriageable age. As with previous generations, Tevye plans to choose prosperous, learned husbands for his daughters. The girls have other ideas, and this break with tradition is what drives the action.

In this production, it's the cast that makes it soar.

Start with Poe, one of the most gifted performers to grace a stage in this area, both amateur and professional. He knows this role; he is this role, and he is so gracefully confident that the audience cannot help but suspend disbelief in the best tradition of theater. Poe's voice and every gesture seem as natural as summer rain.

When Poe's Tevye speaks directly to God and asks him "Why?" he is so real you half expect an answer to come from out of the ceiling.

The three oldest daughters were cast perfectly, as were their husbands-to-be. There's Tzeitel the eldest, done with reserve and maturity by Cara Schell; and Hodel, the second oldest, done with passion by Briana Suojanen, whose lovely voice shimmers with emotion as she contemplates being Far From the Home I Love to be with her beloved. Middle daughter Chava, the family's true rebel, seems as fragile and elusive as a butterfly as done by the wispy Briana Waldorf.

Their suitors were as well-cast as the daughters. Drew Lundquist does the role of his life as Motel, the tailor, Tzeitel's unlikely love. Lundquist has done some fine work at Richey Suncoast in the past, but his voice has never been better than it is in Miracle of Miracles, and his performance never more genuine.

Matthew McLaughlin is the perfect intellectual Perchik, Hodel's suitor. This Perchik is likable - lovable, in fact - and it's McLaughlin's treatment of him that makes it happen. When this supposedly detached revolutionary sings a warm and connected Now I Have Everything when he finally wins Hodel's heart, you can believe it.

Young Cody Carlson surprises in the role of the Russian soldier Fyedka, who woos the vulnerable and beautiful Chava. Carlson is most convincing as a conscript doing his soldierly duty even as it crushes his heart.

Others of note are Mark Pinals as the rough butcher Lazar Wolf, Jeffrey Oles as Mendel the Rabbi's son, Mike Jones as the doddering Rabbi, Dorothy Michaelis as the demanding ghost of Grandma Tzeitel, Deanna Calandrillo as Lazar Wolf's late wife Fruma-Sarah, Nicholas Lisciandro as the conflicted Constable and Mary Frances Kirkpatrick as the busybody Yenta.

With all this, though, the production is not without its flaws. The humongous number in the show requires some creative casting, mainly the Russian soldiers, but after the first doubletake, you realize they don't look much more pubescent than some of the kids you see in today's army.

And in a genuine act of God, the hideous, headache-inducing strobe light used the first couple of nights during the melancholy Anatevka near the end of the show was apparently knocked out of commission by lightning and no longer breaks the mood that has been building during the rest of the show.