Annapolis Chorale breathes new life into songs from 'Fiddler on the Roof'

Since the 1964 debut of the Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical, "Fiddler on the Roof," I've seen the show at least six times and watched it become part of our culture. "Sunrise, Sunset" has replaced "Here Comes the Bride" at most of the weddings I've attended over the past 30 years.

Despite such familiar status, "Fiddler" proved new and enriching at Annapolis Chorale's concert rendition of the show last weekend.


The musical is based on Sholom Aleichem's short story, "Tevye and His Daughters," a tale of a poor Jewish dairyman-philosopher living in a small Russian village, where he regularly converses with God.

An excellent portrayal of Tevye was only one important element in the chorale's spectacular performance of "Fiddler," directed by J. Ernest Green. It rated such praise for a number of reasons, most of them musical.


In concert, "Fiddler on the Roof" takes on a musical purity that fully staged versions lack. The stage was filled back to front and side to side with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and Annapolis Chorale - filled and brimming over with talent. Twelve soloists came and went, appearing on the sides of the stage, using chairs or benches to establish scenes.

Because this is a show about peasants, costumes consisted of simple prayer shawls, head coverings and plain Russian tunics for the men, and simple dark dresses, aprons and head coverings for the women.

The subject matter is the stuff of opera, with its theme of a man forced to choose between his religion and love for his grown daughters. It was expressed through music that seemed better than I remembered in a score that brims with life, is reverent in prayer and at times movingly patriotic. It combats poverty and persecution with music more exuberant than "Havah Nagilah."

The music is a mix of idioms - Jewish, peasant, Russian - and their rich, earthy textures. Total mastery of the score requires more skilled musicians than those in the average road company or dinner theater. But this is precisely what Green and company offered.

The versatile Annapolis Chamber Orchestra, convincingly Viennese in "Die Fledermaus" a few weeks ago, played with Russian-Jewish verve and soul. The chorus delivered a remarkable performance, investing each song with full emotional content.

The chorus had a lively opener in "Tradition," and moved on to a reverent "Sabbath Prayer" filled with lush harmony. The familiar "Sunrise, Sunset" took on added luster with its universal message of children growing up as adults grow old. "To Life, l'chaim" was bursting with exuberance, and "Anatevka" combined a patriotic hymn to one's homeland with the haunting melancholy of Russian folk music.

Music propelled the story forward with dialogue carefully chosen to supplement characterizations and plot.

Tevye has been played by some fine actors; locally, David B. Reynolds' characterization comes to mind with its unique energy and feeling.


But even his Tevye was not as compelling as the one given by Stephen Markuson last weekend.

Markuson's Tevye not only had wry humor and deeply felt religious beliefs, but revealed increased warmth and dignity. Baritone Markuson not only can act, he sings better than any Tevye I've heard.

Other noteworthy soloists included Sarah Blaskowsky as Hodel, who was outstanding among the trio of sisters in "Matchmaker" and touching in "Far From the Home I Love." And tenor Thomas Magette as the tailor Motel sang an impressive "Miracle of Miracles."

As expected in any Chorale production, every singer was well beyond adequate. Several revealed acting talents, including Vee Holt, delightful in the dream sequence as Grandma Tzeitel. Another strong actor was Dyana Neal, who played Yente the Matchmaker.

Broadway shows in concert have proved successful for the chorale, beginning two seasons ago with "Guys and Dolls" and last year with "Brigadoon."

The standing ovation "Fiddler" received inspires my hope for another show reflecting another culture next season.