Welcome to summer outdoor theater. We always ask ourselves why we perform outdoors (with challenges of mosquitos, heat, rain). We all admit, though, there is a kind of extra magic that goes with it.
Summer outdoor theater has always been a festive addition and has been around for decades. For years, the major summer fare was at the Springfield Muni Opera. Clayville also offered summer theater, and the outdoor stage at New Salem (The Great American People Show preceded Theater In the Park.) has been a staple. In recent years summer shows have also been staged indoors at the Hoogland Center for the Arts and Scott Richardson's Legacy Theatre (formerly The Theatre Guild and Springfield Theatre Center).
Springfield has kept in touch with modern times with recent and current productions of musicals such as Next to Normal, Once, Memphis, Rock of Ages, School of Rock, Something Rotten, The Color Purple. It is also good that productions from Broadway's illustrious past are offered. Fiddler on the Roof is always welcome and is now back for its sixth Muni production that opened last weekend at the Muni featuring Gus Gordon in the iconic role of Tevye.
The show, filled with humor and drama, is directed by Laurie McCoy and finishes this weekend at the outdoor amphitheatre at Lake Springfield, closing Saturday, June 10.
This musical has been as popular here as it has all over the world. Past Fiddler productions at Muni were 1971, 1975, 1989, 1998 and 2009. Gordon joins the list of Springfield actors – Jack Duffy, Barry Weiss and Stephan Kaplan – who've all played the role to great acclaim. I admit a bias toward this musical as I was in the show as an apprentice at The Little Theatre On the Square in Sullivan in 1972 (with comedian Shelley Berman as Tevye).
Based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem from the early 1900s about life in a Jewish village in Russia, Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway starring Zero Mostel in 1964 and ran for a record-breaking (at the time) 3,242 performances. The last Broadway revival was in 2015 and has been touring recently. So Fiddler never seems to be too far away. What is it about this show that has hit a chord with audiences for almost 60 years? The music? The Jerome Robbins dancing? I believe it's the simplicity of its storytelling. And it speaks to present-day audiences, especially in this time of upheaval in the world.
The music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein has stood the test of time, though the running time is 2:45 like most of the old musicals. The episodic plot gets right at the heart with its universal themes of family and homeland and freedom. The musical score is first rate and Tom Philbrick's orchestra has a great sound. Teri Benz directs the strong ensemble of singers.
Gus Gordon has starred in a long list of musicals and Tevye is a great role for him now. Always considered a go-to song-and-dance man, Gordon uses his humor to guide us through the show. He also has a stature about him and the serious moments are quite powerful. Suzanne Moss plays Tevye's wife, Golde, and they complement each other well. Golde is a no-nonsense wife and mother who has to keep her husband in line, and Moss infuses the role with deep-felt heart.
There are many standout performances in the large cast of over 50 performers (which includes many old favorites such as Jim Hepworth and Mary Beth Maloney). Tevye's three older daughters (Ellen Tuttle, Alyssa Schultz and Annelysse Warren) are each huge assets with their beautiful, strong voices and first-rate acting. They are aided, too, by their suitors (Oliver Weber, Elijah Sadler and Colten Soto, each great). Tanner Stephens shines with his soaring voice in the "To Life!" number. Karen Gerdes as Yente the Matchmaker, Liz Klauzer as Fruma Sarah and especially Joey McLaughlin as Lazar Wolf bring much character and hilarity to their scenes. Abigail Lueking's dance background makes her a fine Fiddler.
Jamie Impson and Adam Miller have re-created the original choreography of Jerome Robbins (that goose-bumps bottle dance!) while also adding much of their own creative dance movement throughout. The artistic scenic design is by Steve Varble and Kevin Zepp lights the stage beautifully.
It seems the world today needs to be reminded of what Fiddler on the Roof has to say to us, especially with the rise of antisemitism in our country. Treat yourself to this powerful musical Fiddler this weekend.
Phil Funkenbusch made his Muni debut in Sweet Charity in 1978, featuring the late Georgia Dirksen. He can be reached at [email protected]