In Fiddler on the Roof you are meant to laugh and cry in equal measure. To do both means that the production has to have a huge heart. It also has to have in its central character of Tevye the poor milkman, an actor/singer of great power and charisma (remember Topol).
Luckily the Cambridge Operatic Society (CaOS) production at the Arts Theatre more than squares up to these tough criteria. It is a show with bags of heart and succeeded in recreating the little Jewish town in early 20th century Russia, tell the complex story of how tradition-bound Tevye copes (or not) with the the changing times which challenge and threaten the old testament ways of his people.
Unlike many lesser Broadway musicals, Fiddler has a big story to tell: how will Tevye tell his domineering wife Golde that his eldest daughter Zeitel refuses to marry the much older butcher that has been chosen for her? What will he say to a marriage between his other daughter to a fiery young communist who has little regard for the old ways? And how will he possibly accept the marriage of his third daughter to a non Jew? All of this has to played against the backdrop of a anti-semitic edicts from the Czar which threaten the very existence of the community. it is a tribute to the genius of this work that the songs positively help to tell this big story - and they are wonderful songs too.
Though the pacing of the first night show was a touch sluggish here and there, and inevitable nerves were in evidence, CaOS more than pulled it off. David Gower held the stage; his Tevye was sensitive, funny, poignant and totally believable. He was well supported by Caroline Dyson as Golde, his tough wife. Their touching, sardonic duet, 'Do you love me?' was a deeply-felt and moving moment in a production full of juicy plums.
These included a highly effective Jewish wedding scene and a wonderful dream sequence in which an apparently terrified Tevye tells his wife of a nightmare in which long-dead ancestors warn against the arranged marriage between their young daughter Tzeitel (Cat Nicol) and the middle-aged butcher Lazer (Alan Hay). The scene brought the best out in the CaOS chorus who sang throughout with power and confidence. The orchestra under the baton of Brian Thomas gave the singers excellent support in what is often a tricky and complex score.
Though it is very easy to fall off this musical roof, CaOS managed to stay on, tell a genuinely touching story laced with humour, and leave its audience happy if moist eyed - yes, we did laugh and cry.
Fiddler on the Roof continues until Saturday 28th November 2009 at the Cambridge Arts Theatre