Fiddler on the Roof
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through March 22
The time on my cell phone read 7:01 p.m. on Tuesday night as two Durham Performing Arts Center employees trundled through the small knot of 40 or so ticketholders and placed their sign in front of the auditorium's closed doors. Its message: This performance will begin promptly at the stated time for the show.
Sad to say, those minions were on the same schedule as the elderly program handler whose doddering pace on the sole staircase to the main floor had delayed a number of us just long enough to be locked out of "Tradition," the opening number in this touring version of Fiddler on the Roof.
Once permitted entrance, I'll admit that I watched, fascinated, as the front-of-house staff struggled to find seats for the small horde in the darkened room. Their efforts sent parties of one, two and three down various rows of the theater, repeatedly edging past seated patrons throughout the first 18 minutes of the show. Their greatest challenge appeared to be one of the last people seated: a woman who walked with a cane.
So to sum up, Fiddler's zero-hour/ zero-tolerance curtain policy—which, incidentally, wasn't posted on the DPAC Web site, on Ticketmaster or in advertisements for the show—caused disruptions lasting nearly four times longer than the customary five-minute hold commonplace in many local theaters. It also had the added benefit of keeping a woman with limited mobility standing in a darkened room for most of that time.
Let's be clear: A theater has the right to choose three different evening curtain times, as DPAC's one-week run of Fiddler does (at 7, 7:30 and 8 p.m., depending on the night you catch the run). It also clearly has the right to enforce that curtain time as it pleases. But a theater does its audience a disservice if it pursues a relentlessly prompt curtain policy without any notice—besides, that is, a sign that says "Gotcha" at the door.
Particularly one that was placed there one minute after curtain on opening night.
It's gratifying to report that, 42 years after the London production that made him famous in the role of Tevye the milkman, the gleam in Chaim Topol's eyes remains sharp, and his beguiling, remarkable, multi-octave voice, an improbable mixture of thunder, gravel and silk, has only deepened with the passage of time. Throughout a memorable performance in what is being billed as his farewell tour, Topol's kinetic eyebrows don't just perch atop his craggy, bearded face. They give us an ongoing real-time EKG of his character's emotions—arching with surprise or delight one moment, before diving in disapproval seconds later.
To this day, Topol's Tevye remains an entertaining, if contradictory, mensch. He's pious, earthy, pragmatic and befuddled by the world's changes; God's straight man at points, his critic at others. Repeatedly, Tevye appears to be speaking with his creator in more or less the same familiar, wary way one takes on a nice enough next-door neighbor—but one who can still be really cranky on some days.
In this script, Tevye's character is only balanced by Susan Cella's robust reading of Golde, his formidable wife. Rena Strober, Jamie Davis and Alison Walla shine briefly as daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava in the song "Matchmaker" and in their conflicts with their father, while Erik Liberman enjoys moments as Motel the tailor.
Though we never truly buy the menace of the Russian goons, the rest of the cast fills out the limelight amicably enough in a star vehicle still well worth taking out for one last spin.