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THEATRE REVIEW : Starlight’s ‘Fiddler’ Is Fatally Out of Tune

When done right, “Fiddler on the Roof” is nothing less than a love poem to the inherent heartache and joy of the family and a bittersweet ode to a slice of Jewish-Russian shtetl life that has disappeared.

There should be an edge to it. Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the milkman and his five daughters were not meant to be dumped--as they are in the San Diego Civic Light Opera’s Starlight Bowl--into a land of people with quaint costumes and traditions, who mumble unintelligible, inauthentic prayers and carry around leaning towers of bagels on wooden poles.

These are people holding onto a rigid set of traditions as a way of holding onto their humanity in a world that treated them like subhumans and was to destroy most of them in the Holocaust.

There is no such darkness encroaching on the “Fiddler on the Roof” playing at the Starlight Bowl through Sept. 11. No, this is more a case of following the brightly colored bouncing ball from one Broadway hit song to the next. “Aren’t we cute?,” the actors seem to say as they tell their little jokes about the hardships of poverty and the threat of the Czar. “Don’t we have dandy voices?,” they seem to think as they sing their songs of heartbreak to the audience rather than to each other.

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Never mind the usual round of planes roaring over the actors’ heads, skillfully handled with the Starlight’s policy of freezing the moment until the noise wanes. The question is, what was going on inside the head of director Frank Coppola in trying to convey some vision of what the show was about?

Maybe he saw it as a Jewish “Pride and Prejudice,” in which the story begins and ends with Tevye marrying off three of his daughters in matches that vary--in his eyes--from good to disastrous. Maybe Coppola saw it as a showcase for some terrific songs--and let’s face it, this score does not have one cuttable melody.

What Coppola and most of his actors can’t seem to do is move out of the tired cliches and into authentic life.

There are exceptions, though not, unfortunately, in the leads.

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Tevye, the part made famous by Zero Mostel on the stage and by Topol in the movie, offers a unique crack at portraying the most extraordinary of ordinary men--part dreamer, part scholar, an ardent lover of God and an earthy Zorba the Greek. It is fitting that this man, who crosses boundaries in the companionable way he talks both with God and with the devils who menace his world, sires daughters who cross the boundaries of traditional matchmaking in search of love.

Unfortunately, Bob Carroll and Bess Meisler are distinctly underwhelming as a smaller-than-life Tevye and his

acid-tongued wife, Golde. Robbie Mancina, Derin Altay and Elisabeth Stringer are sweet but ultimately unmemorable as the three oldest daughters.

Ed Hollingsworth instills not a grain of fear as the Czar’s representative, the bureaucratic Russian constable who, like the Nazis that followed him, is only following orders as he keeps the pogroms moving closer to where they will hurt most.

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In contrast, Yetta plunges hungrily into the comic meat of the matchmaker, wisely ignoring the yentas of yore, and forging her own satisfyingly sassy interpretation. Gail Wolford ices the delightfully chilly dead wife, Fruma Sarah, to perfection, in a mock-dream sequence that is the highlight of the show.

The suitors for Tevye’s daughters are also standouts. James Saba brings a complex and touching nervousness to Perchik, the scholar who wants to change the world and ends up by falling in love with Tevye’s daughter, Hodel. Michael Detroit is a wonderful muddle as fearful Motel, the poor tailor terrified of asking Tevye for Tzeitel’s hand.

Michael Berry repeats the role of the non-Jewish suitor, Fyedka, sadly with less ease than he gave it in the United States International University production last season.


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