OREM — Trying to strike the proper balance of honoring the original text and spirit of a decades old musical while keeping it fresh, interesting and relevant is a task as difficult as attempting to be a Fiddler on the Roof.  The SCERA Shell gave it a valiant effort on Friday night, and in many ways presented a new view of the play (book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) while maintaining its strong traditions.

Show closes August 18, 2012.

My favorite reviews to read are those that tell me, as a reader, what I might expect from an evening at this performance—start to finish.  To that end, I’d like to give a brief note to the operators of the SCERA facility: something has got to be done to streamline your ticketing experience.  I’ve seen a number of shows at the Shell and a common, unfortunate theme is a long frustrating wait for tickets. I battled through that ordeal, captured my tickets, descended the grassy hill and found my seat.  For the brief moments before the production began, I marveled at the raucous crowd that had assembled.  This massive amphitheater was filled to near capacity with chattering patrons, charged with the prospects of the show they were set to see.  My heart swells, as a theater lover and actor, to see such an involved, bursting audience.

The set (designed by Teri Griffin) is one of the nicest and most gorgeous I’ve seen for a show at the Shell.  It’s a very inventive use of the space with a number of interesting surprises built in.  As the first group number, “Tradition,” begins I notice that the costumes (designed by Deborah Bowman) are very well done. Most of the costumes are exactly what you’d expect from this show: tattered, torn, reused.  There is a rich vibrant feel of home emanating from the stage, which is appropriate for this play.  The makeup and beards were also less than impressive, specifically that worn by Ed Eyestone in the role of the Rabbi.  His beard looked like something tossed aside after a Halloween costume party.

In the opening scenes, the audience was introduced to Neal Barth, playing Tevye, and he was adorable.  Barth’s eyes twinkle with the loving mischief that this character embodies. Barth seems very steeped in the character, and if I were a betting man, I’d bet he’s played this role before.  His voice is very nice and there were many moments where his character work was exactly as I would imagine Tevye to behave.  Unfortunately, there were a few songs (namely, the soliloquies) where Barth chose to speak the lines of the song instead of sing them, and I was sorry to see that.  However, Barth’s performance in the moments leading up to the “Dream” sequence were brilliant. When it came time for the expected stomping and shimmying dance at the end of “Rich Man,” I was thrilled and Barth played it without seeming hokey or contrived.  Bravo!

Golde, played by Agnes Broberg is one of my favorite characters in any musical when played well.  I’m sorry to report that I was underwhelmed by Broberg’s performance.  I feel that she is written as a pushy, loud, rushing- almost ranting presence, and I just don’t think that Broberg captured any of those emotions.  This lack was especially glaring when drilling the hungover Tevye for information after a long night of his drinking. The three eldest daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava take over the stage for “Matchmaker,”  and do an admirable job.  Tzeitle, played by Hannah Herring, may have been a bit under the weather, because her acting was very solid, as was her voice until she sang in her higher register, where her voice failed her.  That aside, she was quite consistent throughout the show.  Katie Abbott, playing Hodel, was a bright point in the production for me.  Her voice is clear, strong and very easy to listen to.  I felt that she brought some nice substance to the character.  Emily Erdmann played Chava and also gave a steady performance.  Her emotional connection to her love interest, Fyedka (played by Andrew Olsen) was by far the most believable of the night.

Neal Barth as Tevye. Photo: Jaren Wilkey.

Erdmann and Olsen’s connection highlighted what seemed to me a lacking element throughout the show: little-to-no chemistry between characters, particularly love interests.  From Tevye and Golde to Zteitel and Motel (played by Daniel Tomlinson) to Hodel and Perchik . . . I just felt no connection, pressure or elevation between the characters and it made it difficult for me to emotionally invest in the happenings of the play.  I feel like fairly small directorial adjustments from the director, Jerry Elison, could have made a world of difference.  Andrew Cook (Perchik) gave a decent performance but, for me his character was one dimensional and too prickly.  I didn’t see any reason for Hodel to be smitten with him.  There were no soft, redeeming moments, and Perchik just came off as a pushy know-it-all.  Daniel Tomlinson was a fine Motel.  I wanted him to be much more timid and afraid of Tevye, but aside from that he played it well.  Andrew Olsen as Fyedka, the Russian military officer who steals Chava’s heart, was a bit of a disappointment.  His character seemed quite weak and not believable.  His voice was undeveloped and he struggled with one of the potentially most impressive solos of the show.  Olsen also spoke with no accent at all, which I’m fine with – if everyone makes that choice.  It’s quite distracting, however to have the majority of the cast attempting accents and a select few not.  Olsen did prove to be, in my opinion, the best dancer of the production.

Hannah Herring, Katie Abbot, and Emily Erdmann. Photo: Jaren Wilkey.

Staging was a particularly glaring problem in the group numbers.  In “Sabbath Prayer,” “Anatevka,” and other musical numbers the supporting cast simply trotted on stage, stood in place, sang and left.  They were given nothing to work with. Here, again, I felt that very minor changes from the director could have lead to sweeping, vast improvements.

I must address something that really detracted from the production for me.  Both Yente (played by Delayne Bluth Dayton) and the Rabbi (played by Ed Eyestone) I found to be insultingly over the top caricatures.  Less so in the case of Dayton, whose performance left me more confused than insulted.  Her accent was more that of a New Jersey housewife slowed drastically down, and her “nudging” the audience for laughs grew tiresome.  I’m sorry to say that I found nothing redemptive about Eyestone’s performance, which was bumbling, and insulting.  I don’t lay the blame solely on Eyestone, though. Elison, as the director, (whom I have worked with before and love dearly) should have nipped that in the bud.

So, is the show worth seeing?  I know I’ve hit on a number of sour issues I had with the piece, but the fact is, even given these nit-picking imperfections I’ve pointed out, I really enjoyed it.  Fiddler on the Roof will always hold a special place in my heart and there was much about this performance that filled me with joy, sorrow and resolve at all the right moment.  If you’re a fan of this play, or even if you’ve never seen it, I would recommend that you see this production.   You’ll come away with a song in your heart!

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the SCERA Shell amphitheater (699 S. State Street, Orem) Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8 PM through August 18. Tickets are $8-14. For more information, visit www.scera.org.