Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fiddler Revisits Chanhassen

The quintessential musical still feels fresh

Can a classic musical ever get tired?

In the case of Chanhassen Dinner Theater's newest production of Fiddler on the Roof, the answer is a definite no. While keeping in rhythm with classic Fiddler choreography and characterization, Chanhassen injects a zest and enthusiasm that reinvigorates it.

Fiddler in a way is the Jewish iteration of the Italian neorealist movement forefronted by Federico Fellini. Focusing on a family in a small village (Anatevka) of poor Jews in pre-revolutionary Russia, Fiddler on the Roof melts the issues of class, racism, inter-generational conflict, and religion into a complex and enjoyable melting pot. Tevye leads us through life in Anatevka, replete with matchmakers and arranged marriages, attacks from the Russian citizens, the dawn of modern sexual and racial politics, and the rebellion of three of his five daughters.

Chanhassen veteran Keith Rice plays Tevye, and in classic Keith Rice fashion makes the role truly his own. At times, Rice seems a little overly laissez faire with his Tevye, not taking his daughter's flagrant violations of tradition and authority quite so seriously as he might. However, Rice's portrayal does allow for a more generous, modern Tevye, and the audience leaves feeling connection and warmth to him.

As Golde, Tevye's wife, fellow veteran Michelle Barber is okay. Her character portrayal is very warm and endearing, but her voice doesn't always follow through. Serena Brook is wonderful as Tzeitel, hardworking, hopeful, and perfectly matched with her lover Motel (Zachary Colton Schaeffer). Ruthanne Heyward (Hodel) hits a standout note in her solo as she leaves for Siberia, but otherwise tends to blend in to the rest of the show.

Standout numbers included "To Life," a vignette showcasing the process of arranged marriage in Anatevka, as Lazar Wolf drinks Tevye into agreeing to let Lazar marry Tevye's eldest daughter Tzeitel. Two elements make the scene immensely entertaining: the choreography, which showcases fabulous Russian kick dancing, and the absolutely angelic voice of Tyler Michaels (Fyedka). (In fact, my greatest disappointment with the entire production is that we only get to hear Michaels' voice in this scene; his pipes are SO extraordinary that I am now craving to hear him in almost anything... Chanhassen, this is a plea: PLEASE showcase him more in future productions!!)

The other standout included perennial tearjerker "Far From the Home I Love." Heyward/Hodel is desperately winsome, strong and longing in this short piece, and it is a definite tearjerker.

The greatest test of Fiddler's enjoyability is the 'Tevye's Bedroom' sequence, which can engage or destroy the rest of the show. In this scene where Tevye convinces his wife to let Tzeitel marry Motel instead of Lazar Wolf, Chanhassen pulls it off, although there is a strange use of demonic chicken costumes in Fruma Sarah (Emily Rose Skinner)'s appearance - presumably, this is to indicate Lazar's career as a butcher, but it is very confusing visually.

Fiddler on the Roof is a classic show, and no one does comfort-food classic theater like the Chanhassen Dinner Theater. It's been decades since Fiddler appeared at Chanhassen, and fans of the show (or anyone looking for an easily enjoyable night out from the winter cold) should check it out. You can find more information about the show and purchasing tickets at this link.

*All photos courtesy of Chanhassen Dinner theater/c Michal Daniel, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Bloody Good Time

Carrie The Musical shows a softer side of the classic horror tale

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Stephen King’s first hit Carrie has finally returned to the world of musical theater. Though the original adaptation is still considered one of the most expensive and most spectacular Broadway flops (ever), the re-worked version is being staged now at the New Century Theater, just in time for Halloween.

Carrie White is a late blooming teenager in her senior year of high school. Between being bullied at school and dominated by her overbearing mother at home, Carrie is set for a life of suffering and pain, until she discovers she can move things with her mind. Things seem to be looking up until Carrie’s schoolmates play a terrible prank on her – and Carrie’s telekinesis becomes her final, bloody weapon against her tormentors.

The benefits of putting such a story into musical form are debatable, and the results are mixed. Carrie opens with a strong ensemble performance of “In,” setting the audience up with high hopes. But the immediate follow-up, “Carrie,” is so full of awkward key and tempo changes that it’s hard to pick up the momentum.

Standout musical performances definitely include duets between Carrie and Margaret (her mother), such as “Evening Prayers” and “Stay Here Instead.” And the choreography in “The Destruction” is engaging, with all cast members somehow writhing, rolling, and slamming around in perfect time without looking at each other at all.

As Carrie, Jill Iverson shows a remarkably fluid range as Carrie. Her voice slithers between scenes, hitting high and low octaves with the full angst of a vengeful, bitter teenager. She manages to inspire empathy and pride as she takes her path of revenge, and it’s an enjoyable performance.

Philip C. Matthews is the perfect high school dreamboat as Tommy Ross; Natalie Schleusner has just the right repentant booze-on-Saturday-night-church-on-Sunday-morning pitch as his girlfriend/narrator Sue Snell. Their empathetic views toward Carrie White significantly soften the “scary” in this Carrie, but the show still manages to hit some creepy notes.

Carrie is an exercise in experimentation in just about every way. What happens when a young girl is pushed to the edge? When we give her supernatural abilities? Can a horror story work as a musical? Just like Carrie herself, it’s worth making a visit to the New Century Theater and giving it a chance.

Carrie runs through October 27 at the New Century Theater in the City Center. Click on this link to purchase tickets and learn more about the show