“If I were a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum. All day long I’d biddy biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man.”
Oh, to be a fly on the wall when lyricist Sheldon Harnick announced the second line of a song he’d written for Fiddler on the Roof was “yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum”. But along with book writer Joseph Stein and composer Jerry Bock, their efforts translated into one of the most successful Broadway productions ever, with this story of Tevye, a milkman in pre-revolutionary Russia, and his three headstrong daughters making life in the village very difficult by challenging the old order. Craig Revel-Horwood employs his tried-and-tested actor-musician model to invigorate new life into the show (one which is new to me, I’ve never even seen the film) which is just undertaking a huge UK tour, starting at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre (another first for me).
Due to the indisposition of Paul Michael Glaser, we were treated to an understudy performance as Tevye and not even the named understudy Paul Kissaun at that, Eamonn O’Dwyer took on the role and a fine job he did too. Though demonstrably too young for the part, his wry exasperation at the way the world turns and the warm geniality with which he rolls with it made for an assured central presence that kept the show moving with a twinkle-eyed grace. Even with the age mismatch with Karen Mann as his long-suffering wife Golde, there was a palpable chemistry that made their second half duet ‘Do You Love Me?’ a genuinely lovely thing.
Mann is excellent throughout as are the three younger actresses who play the daughters – Emily O’Keeffe as Tzeitel, Claire Petzal as Chava and Liz Singleton as Hodel, each spirited in their own way and determined to follow their own hearts. O’Keeffe pairs beautifully with Jon Trenchard’s vivid turn as tailor Motel and Singleton’s beautiful voice marks her as one to watch for the future. But there’s strength throughout the 20-strong company whom constantly dazzle with their skills – Susannah Van Den Berg makes clarinet-playing exhilarating in the finale, Jennifer Douglas’ fiddler (more often technically in the roof than on it…) an almost haunting ever-present figure, balefully watching over.
It is undoubtedly a long show, coming in at three hours and the first half does come to feel a little laborious, especially with the extended dance sequences which although impressive and evocative, become repetitious. And though the actor-musicianship works well in the main, there are moments when it inhibits Revel-Horwood’s choreographic ambition, most notably in the post-wedding scene when the expansiveness of the full company number never explodes like it should and not even the bride and groom are given time off from their instruments.
But when the show works, it is very good. Grandma Tzeitel’s dream sequence is brilliant with its witty appearances of ghostly figures, and ‘Sunrise Sunset’ is a moving piece of understated musical theatre perfection. There are too few moments where the production really touched my emotions this way for me to label it a classic but if I were giving a star rating, it would be somewhere between 3.5 and 4. But though you may have to read elsewhere to hear how Glaser fulfils the role and how the show works with him, it is testament indeed that the company look in such strong shape without him at such an early stage of what is a mammoth tour.