Review: Fiddler on the Roof

Footlight Productions
Sacred Heart College Performing Arts Centre
13 to 28 January

Spent last night at Sacred Heart College in Geelong attending the latest production from Footlight Productions, an adaptation of Fiddler On The Roof. For nearly sixty years, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s original broadway masterpiece has been a staple in the musical theatre community and it’s adaptations and influences have been evident for just as long with not only a successful film adaptation starring Chaim Topol but also references galore in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and shows like The Simpsons and it has even been sampled by musicals like The Wedding Singer and many artists in contemporary pop music, most notably in Gwen Stefani’s mid 2000s hit Rich Girl. After all these years, many may be quick to discard Fiddler On The Roof as a musical that has been done to death over certain periods of time but now that its getting performed again by multiple companies this year, its proved to be one of the main musicals of its era to remain relevant today and has demonstrated it’s timelessness over and over again. To start our beloved amateur circuit’s 2023 Fiddler renaissance, Footlight took a big leap of faith and succeeded wonderfully in order to get the ball rolling.

The wide range of talents and resumes of the prod team undeniably brought this production to such heights that a theatre patron outside the amateur circuit could easily mistake this community treasure for a professional broadway production. Alister Smith took a break from directing the Australian professional premiere of Cruel Intentions and it’s ongoing tour to direct Footlight’s Fiddler and he used the experience he had in the professional circuit to influence his creative vision for the town of Anatevka. With lighting design from Dean Taylor, set design from Adam “Gus” Powers and a special nod to those fighting for freedom in present day Ukraine, Smith utilised mostly props and the art of projections to immerse the audience into the heart of the early 20th century Jewish communities of Pre-Soviet Russia and to top off his moving masterpiece, the projected set was literally like a painting on a canvas with such character and flow that you could’ve only seen previously in the works of artists like Van Gogh and Monet, resulting in a visual, valiant and versatile directorial effort for the ages. The role of musical director was dually trusted to Phil Kearney and John Shawcross. True to the old saying, together they could make beautiful music together with their long history of MD and band experience and the audience were serviced with it in style even with expectations for the traditionally influenced score going through the roof (no puns intended). Kearney, Shawcross and their loyal band had the entire auditorium clapping along to the classic score in all of the up-tempo numbers while the ballads had us mesmerised with every haunting, sombre note taking us on a real roller coaster ride of emotion. Meanwhile, the vocals and harmonies presented by the cast were so full and crisp that no vocal section remained inaudible, whether you were a soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, etcetera, your voice would have carried through people’s ears and into people’s hearts with a musical display that can be described as sensual and symphonic to the extent that even music in world renowned concert halls could take notes on its listening pleasures. While the music gave the show its heart and direction gave it its soul, Ashley Boyd really gave this production it’s fire with her choreography, allowing every individual gracing the stage to showcase the best of their abilities and unleash the energy and strength lying in the pit of their stomachs. Diving in deep to the folk dances of the Jewish faith and Russian culture, Boyd took inspiration from routines such as Cossack, Troika, Horah and the Yemenite Step to give the choreography authenticity that many amateur companies crave to create, resulting in a wild, wondrous and wholesome party atmosphere, which could have resulted in audience participation if it was allowed and many of them will be left googling how to do these classic dances as soon as the final curtain closes.

In the cast, magic was happening all throughout whether you were one of the main leads or a minor supporting role, they were all destined to shine a light for the world to see, especially with an ensemble as vocally perfect as a church choir supporting them all the way through. With such a big cast, it’s hard to highlight each individual performance in the production but first, I want to place a spotlight on Jemma Lowther and her performance as the titular Fiddler. Lowther didn’t even have to say a word throughout Fiddler On The Roof or play a real fiddle for that matter but her characterisation was one that was so hypnotising and heralded, that she could have carried the entire show herself as her expressions, movements and stage presence told a story all of its own all the while elevating the main story of changing times and traditions. I would also like to highlight the performances of the remainder of minor roles, in particular the ones given by David Mackay as Lazar Wolf, Howard Dandy as the Rabbi, India Ney as Grandma Tzeitel, Jenn Stirk as Fruma Sarah and Jordan Ybarzabal as the Constable. Like Lowther, all of them had enviable characterisation that could even put some professional productions to shame and their commitment to their roles has been some of the most dedicated ensemble work I’ve seen in recent years and those in that department of the cast should be given just as much credit as the major leads. But what about the major leads? For the ladies in the cast, they were lead to greatness through Hayley Wood and Mandy Calderwood and their portrayals of Golde and Yente respectively. Wood’s portrayal of the matriarch of the house who wanted only the best for her daughters while honouring the traditions of her faith was the epitome of both strength and sorrow and even though their were many moments she could make the audience laugh along with her, her heart and soul were on full display from start to finish, giving us a relatable and relevant character that still holds up in many culture to this day. Meanwhile, Calderwood delved into her character head first and if she wasn’t making you laugh with her, at times, misguided wisdom for matrimony, she was making you feel for her with her lonely tale of trying to arrange love for others when she’s lost her own, resulting in a portrayal of a widowed matchmaker all the more heartwarming and heroic. Both ladies were phenomenal but there were five female performances that struck a chord within me, earning them the title of the queens of the production and those were the portrayals of the five daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze and Bielke by Cassie Chappell, Rose Chambers, Molly and Abbey Jones and Molly Gleeson respectively. The innocence to the world around them at the start of the show to their transformation into empowered women ready to face the world was stuff you’d only see in storybooks and Disney movies and for young ladies, all of them could showcase every emotion known to man and convince those watching that there were real tears being shed, giddiness in their playful nature and blood-curdling screams that struck real fear and horror into the mindset of our brains. Many actresses could only dream of achieving what these five ladies have done in their lifetime while they have facial expressions down to a T at such a young age, resulting in memorable performances of young women following their hearts and writing their own stories that were breathtaking and brave right from their introduction.

Three of the daughters would find love throughout the production in the forms of Motel, Perchik and Fyedka, played by Liam McWhinney, Aidan O’Cleirigh and Charles McIntyre respectively and by Fiddler’s end, we wanted them to be our true love as well. McWhinney’s portrayal of the shy, lovable, poor tailor who captured Tzeitel’s heart was a complete 180 to his previous roles in Bright Star And Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, but the Guild winning performer took a chance and accepted the challenge with incredible results, reminding the audience that he is without a doubt one of the most sought after, talented and versatile performers in our community under 30. O’Cleirigh’s portrayal of the radical teacher fighting for freedom of speech in Tsar-era Russia who captured the heart of Hodel was different from from all the other male characters in the show as he constantly challenged the norm and made sure that people’s words from the heart would not fall on deaf ears. Even though his character’s arrest brought his time on stage to an end, he made quite the impression on us all and even would have had the young at heart following his principles and ideals. As for McIntyre, his portrayal of a Russian soldier torn between two worlds touched the hearts of many as he was willing to give up his comfortable life in the Russian forces to fall im love and settle down with Chava to the chagrin of his faith and her family. As a person whose Italian grandparents marriage was protested but proved to be one of the strongest I’ve known, I was left with no choice but to root for them the entire time despite all the odds being stacked against them and I was honoured that McIntyre managed to recognise the sacrifices our ancestors have made for love. All three suitors had our hearts flying into colour with performances that were romantic and realistic. However, the king of the production who reigned supreme over the entire production was without question, Jamie McGuane whose portrayal of the traditional, hard-working and stubborn patriarch Tevye was the definition of perfect casting. McGuane embodied literally everything his character was in a role he was born to play and from the moment he stood onstage, the talented performer our community knew and loved was gone and the spirit of Tevye had taken over control. We as a modern day audience may not have agreed with all of Tevye’s beliefs but McGuane had us rooting for him and yearning for his traditional character as he went on his journey of adaptation and change to the world evolving around him while protecting his pride and family in the process, resulting in commanding and colourful performance that could be cheerful one minute and cold in a good way the next that the ghost of original broadway performer Zero Mostel and original film performer Chaim Topol could look down upon and smile from ear to ear over. It’s performances like this that can inspire the newcomers of our community and strengthen even the most professional of theatre performers and I can safely say that McGuane is easily one of the earliest frontrunners for Best Actor when the award season comes around at year’s end.

The Fiddler On The Roof renaissance in Melbourne’s amateur circuit is off to a fine start thanks to Footlight’s adaptation and it introduced musical theatre classics like Tradition, Matchmaker, If I Were A Rich Man, To Life, Sunrise Sunset and Sabbath Prayer to a brand new modern day audience that will have them shouting HEY all the way home. The production paved the way for not only more productions of Fiddler to come but what great theatrical feats the West has to offer in our new theatrical year with recognition deserving ensemble work, direction and performances. Special shoutout to my friends Liam McWhinney and Ben McNaughton for their amazing performances as Motel and Avram respectively and also to director Alister Smith for his continued trailblazing in the world of both professional and amateur theatre. Congratulations to the entire cast and crew associated with Footlight’s Fiddler, if you haven’t gotten your tickets yet to see this groundbreaking production, make sure you do while you still can, support the company and local theatre as they have one more weekend left and your company will definitely have me returning soon hungry for more. L’chaim and Mazel Tov.

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Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. They hope their reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped them throughout the years.
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