Circa 'Fiddler' is heavenly, deeply moving

Originally Posted Online: May 28, 2014, 12:53 pm
Last Updated: June 02, 2014, 10:28 am
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's stellar, deeply moving new production of the 50-year-old classic, "Fiddler on the Roof," is a truly religious experience -- heavenly and divine.

The vividly emotional, epic tale centers on the devout Russian dairyman Tevye, and how he struggles mightily to adjust to titanic changes to centuries-old traditions. While the setting is a small Jewish village in 1905, the story is timeless because any parent, child, or immigrant family can relate to its themes of love, faith, control, independence, change, discrimination and starting over.

Immortalized on stage and screen by Zero Mostel, Chaim Topol and Herschel Bernardi, the iconic role of Tevye is fully owned and embodied by Marc Ciemiewicz, a member of Circa's performing wait staff, the friendly and talented Bootleggers.

The enthusiastic 37-year-old actor has pleased audiences in comic parts of previous Circa productions "Miracle on 34th Street," "Nuncrackers," and "Happy Days: The Musical," so I knew Mr. Ciemiewicz could nail the wry, world-weary comic asides of Tevye. I was not prepared to be so overwhelmed by his towering dramatic chops -- the actor brilliantly captures both the domineering ego of the patriarchal role and the humble, helpless-to-stem-the-sweeping-tide-of-change side.

Like any parent, Tevye wants the best for his children. He and his loving wife Golde (an appealing, supportive Rachelle Walljasper) met on their wedding day in keeping with the tradition for marriages to be arranged by the parents or a matchmaker and now have five daughters. The musical's big opening number, "Tradition," sets out the prescribed roles for fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, and is realized at Circa with powerful precision and life-affirming energy.

The rest of the show's bumpy, eventful ride (filled with both reverence and healthy questioning) is a gradual dismantling of those customs. And Mr. Ciemiewicz is a touchingly compassionate guide, often speaking directly to God, and we empathize with how difficult it is for Tevye to resolve the many sides of his eldest daughters' decisions.

For example, the poor, nervous tailor Motel (Aidan Sank) is in love with the oldest daughter, Tzeitel (Alexis Harter), but the wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf (James Fairchild) would be a more suitable match, according to the gossipy, pushy matchmaker Yente (Dee Canfield). What's love got to do with it? Can money buy happiness?

Much of the story's first act concerns the rocky road to marriage for Motel and Tzeitel. In "Matchmaker," she and Hodel (Rachel Schimenti) and Chava (Iliana Garcia) dream of their ideal match and how to please their scholarly papa. The trio is quite strong, sassy and charming.

In the signature "If I Were a Rich Man," Mr. Ciemiewicz revels in Tevye's own dream for a contented life. As he is throughout the show, it's an outsized, bravura performance.

Virtually every song in this amazingly melodic, gorgeous and bountiful score (by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) is a standout (but then Act II boasts just four numbers). "Sabbath Prayer" -- when the family lights candles for their holy meal -- is reverent and beautiful; "To Life" -- when Tevye and Lazar celebrate their initial agreement -- is boisterous and appropriately full of life and joy.

"Miracle of Miracles" -- where Motel basks in the glow of winning Tzeitel's hand -- is an ecstatic, jubilant wonder in Mr. Sank's hands. This exuberant, rocketing train of a song doesn't let up until its final note, and a great hug between the lovers.

"Sunrise, Sunset," sincerely made me cry; the stunning, affecting wedding scene will be bittersweet to any parent (including the lines, "I don't remember growing older/When did they?"). The big wedding dance that follows is another lively celebration that's shockingly interrupted.

While not leaving you humming the tune, "The Dream" is an imaginative, phantasmagoric production where Tevye tries to convince Golde that Lazar is not right for their daughter, after being spookily threatened by the ghostly apparition of Lazar's dead first wife. Including Ms. Harter doubling as Grandma Tzeitel and the theatrical magic of costume designer Gregory Hiatt and lighting designer Steve Sorensen, the scene is stark and mock scary.

Tevye is further put through challenging paces with the political, unconventional dissident Perchik (from Kiev) in love with Hodel, and the Christian soldier Fyedka falling for Chava.

As Perchik, Mark Bacon persuasively makes the case for questioning authority, tradition, and calling people to action, not simply words. "Now I Have Everything" is an enchanting, elegant ode to a couple's affection and partnership, tenderly sung by Mr. Bacon and Ms. Schimenti.

She also is heartbreaking and radiant in the painful goodbye between Hodel and Tevye, in "Far From The Home I Love." After Tevye is adamant in not permitting Chava to marry Fyedka, he sings of another daughter's loss, "Little Chavaleh," done with grace and sensitivity by Mr. Ciemiewicz, to a mini-ballet of three daughters.

"Fiddler" -- expertly led by veteran director/choreographer Jim Hesselman -- hauntingly and poignantly reflects the universal plight of all immigrants, and really anyone who dares trying something new or nontraditional.

You certainly don't need to be Jewish to admire the chutzpah and resilience of these brave characters. You just need to be human.

If you go

What: "Fiddler on the Roof."
When: Through July 19; 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; Sundays at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $49.12 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $43.37 for the plated-lunch matinees, available at the box office, 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or at circa21.com.


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1914 -- 100 years ago: Wires of the defunct Union Electric Co. are being removed by city electricians.
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1964 -- 50 years ago: A boom in apartment construction has hit Rock Island, with approximately 300 units either in or near the construction stage or due for an early rezoning decision.
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