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Flaws on, off stage hamper "Fiddler'

The venerable musical Fiddler on the Roof opened Friday for a four-weekend run at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson, sparked by several outstanding performances and many moments of pure delight, but flawed by sometimes inept (or perhaps non-existent) direction, some startlingly inappropriate casting choices and a live orchestra that played nearly every number as slowly as a funeral dirge.

Fiddler is the story of the Jewish dairyman Tevye, who with Golda, his wife of 25 years, has raised five daughters in czarist Russia around the turn of the century.

They live in the impoverished, mostly-Jewish village of Anatevka, where they are constantly harassed by Russian soldiers "just doing their jobs."

Tevye's simple life is suddenly complicated when his grown daughters begin to have thoughts of matrimony. Golda hopes to arrange marriages with rich husbands; Tevye wants to choose husbands who are intellectuals.

But right there in tradition-bound Anatevka, the daughters decide to ignore their parents' wishes and choose their own husbands.

How the aging parents deal with their upstart daughters and the brutality of the Russian government is the crux of the show.

The center of the story is Tevye, played by Vince Vanni, who struggles mightily to overcome the s-l-o-w tempo and l-o-u-d playing in the orchestra pit throughout the play. He truly shines when his considerable acting skills are allowed to flow freely, especially during the second act.

Vanni's Tevye is particularly touching in the scene where daughter Hodel (Kathleen Vanni) and the radical student Perchik (Barry Hicks) declare their intention to marry whether Dad gives permission or not. All three players seem comfortable enough at this point in the production to let their feelings radiate enough to warm the somewhat chilly theater.

The most exciting moment in the show is when Fruma-Sarah, played with appropriate drama by Anna Sandoval, comes back from the grave to warn Tevye and Golda (Susan Falcone) not to let their daughter marry the grumpy old butcher Lazar Wolf (Chris Fickley). The staging in this scene is remarkable, especially considering the limitations of the small Show Palace stage and minuscule wing space.

Fine performances are put in by several cast members, especially by dancer/singer/actor Jeremy Scott Stidham as Motel, the tailor; Randi Hoidalen as eldest daughter Tzeitel, his beloved; and John Lewis as a slightly bumbling but always logical rabbi.

Stidham does Motel with traces of meekness but lots more spunk than many other players have portrayed in this traditionalnebbish role. The unusual interpretation is a nice touch that brings a fresh perspective to the Motel character. Ms. Hoidalen's stage presence and lovely voice are delightful.

Unfortunately, the many bright moments were all too often dimmed by the irksome drawbacks, such as actors talking to each other instead of the audience, a flaw easily remedied by a cogent directorial hand.

Most distracting was the miscasting of a frail young woman with bounteous, barely concealed locks in the role of what is supposed to be a tough, dirty, arrogant Russian soldier. Yes, she can dance, but the dance numbers would do just as well without her and wouldn't cause chortles in the audience when she appears.

Almost as diverting was a very youthful Nachum the Beggar, strangely attired in a black straw sun hat pulled down over his eyes.

The set by Jim Boober is sturdy and realistic, but set changes were marred by an orchestra that stopped playing transition music halfway through many of the switches, leaving the stage crew to bump about in stark silence.

Also missing was the vivid makeup needed to give the young players in the roles of older adults the appearance of advancing age, especially Lazar Wolf and Grandma Tzeitel.

Credit for the pluses and blame for the shortcomings of this show must lie at the feet of Wayne Raymond, who took on the three crucial jobs of director, musical director and orchestra conductor, arguably too much for one person.

This Fiddler has the potential to be a truly fine show. There are many good actors, a solid set, effective lighting and some truly inspired stage business.

What it needs, as the show's closing number Anatevka might say, is "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" to make it a truly outstanding production.

Somebody might start with a shot of adrenaline to the orchestra conductor to speed things up. That alone could cut the running time from a sometimes tedious three hours to a sprightly two and a half.

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