Fiddler on the Roof

The cast play the music in Craig Revel Horwood's inventive take on the famous musical

Fans of musical theatre the world over are very familiar with Fiddler on the Roof, based on the Sholem Aleichem stories and set in pre-revolution Russia. Rather less familiar is the concept of ‘clarinettist on the stairs’ and ‘cellist on the landing’ or ‘guitarist in the yard’, which is a feature of this touring production currently in Belfast's Grand Opera House.

This unique company – in which every cast member, including Paul Michael Glaser as Tevye, doubles as a musician – places a new emphasis on the phrase 'musical theatre', and the result is a fascinating step in an occasionally cumbersome direction.

The score is entirely played by members of the cast, who are often onstage during musical numbers, whether they are necessarily involved in the scene or not. This means that the town of Anatevka, in which the story is set, comes across as the most musical village on the planet. Even the Rabbi is a bassoonist, often to be found casually polishing the instrument on a bench, or, most impressively, dancing with it during livelier numbers.

One of Tevye’s daughters is a competent cellist, another a clarinettist. Possibly the most incongruous doubling is Tevye’s long-suffering wife, Golde, a reasonable trumpeter. The sight of matchmaker Yente trundling along with a bright red accordion strapped to her body is also something to adjust to, visually and theatrically.

At times, the use of instruments by key cast members intrudes, as when Motel and Tzeitel celebrate their engagement with the song 'Wonder of Wonders', him clutching a piccolo, her with a clarinet, the instrument she also carries to her wedding a scene or two later. A tense moment like 'they gave each other a pledge' simply doesn’t need two key actors also functioning as the woodwind section.

Musically, the orchestrations by Sarah Travis, which owe much to the 1981 film score, work very well. The eclectic combination of instruments includes oboe, cor anglais, violins, guitars, double bass, saxophone, flute, piccolo, ukulele, trombone, piano and the aforementioned bassoon, clarinet, trumpet, cello and accordion.

The role of the Fiddler is, not surprisingly, the most consistent musical presence and Jennifer Douglas is often perched on the eponymous roof or joining in with the villagers as the story progresses. There’s a logic to the fiddler’s presence, who represents the tradition that so permeates village society.

There is also some logic in the villagers making their own music, and director Craig Revel Horwood – who also plays the devlish judge on Strictly Come Dancing – has made a positive feature of this, lighting musicians even when they are to the back of the stage or mainly behind the set.

Logic and visual coherence breaks down, falls off the roof and flies out the window, however, with instruments that are clearly modern and shiny equivalents of their historic forerunners. Surely it would have been possible to source playable alternatives to the gleaming saxophone, glassy cello and double bass or plastic recorder used onstage. Perchik, the revolutionary student who woos daughter Hodel, at one point sports a guitar with a built-in graphic equaliser, for heaven’s sake.

As you would expect, however, the choreographyis impressive and well-executed; a re-creation of the traditional elements of the original stage show and film, complete with the gloriously melded Russian-Jewish pub scene, a nicely macabre dream sequence and the precarious bottle dance at the wedding. With a cast of just 19, everyone is busy most of the time, and chorus numbers are suitably well-populated.

Scenes between just two actors are most effective, the acting credentials of various performers shining through. Chief among these is Paul Michael Glaser as Tevye. His one-sided dialogues with God have a wry potency, and his interaction with Golde in the lovely 'Do You Love Me?', or Hodel at the train halt, is well-judged and touching. He is able to silence a Belfast audience too ready to find everything funny, with his powerful playing of the encounter with daughter Chava, cast out for marrying outside the faith.

He is less comfortable onstage when singing, losing focus and stillness, hands constantly in motion, gesturing with every syllable, arms and legs strangely un-coordinated. His singing of the 'Sabbath Prayer' and 'Sunrise, Sunset' lack gravitas and the necessary quality of sustain. He does move easily between speech and singing, however; a rare and impressive skill.

Karen Mann as Golde plays up both the steel and silliness of this character, with fine moments of emotion. She is, however, the most encumbered by the director’s decision that the cast suggest a Russian accent by pronouncing W as V, an unnecessary and potentially farcical approach.

Emily O’Keefe is a rambunctious Tzeitel who mellows nicely as the first-married daughter. Jon Trenchard’s Motel, meanwhile, is vocally impressive, and he manages to create a large character, unhindered by small physical stature. Liz Singleton as Hodel is among the best singers, well matched with Steven Bor as Perchik.

Their relationship is believably unwrapped, in much the same way as that of Chava and Fyedka (Claire Petzal and Daniel Bolton). Indeed, across this production, a fine balance is struck between the inherent light-hearted gloss of the big stage musical and the powerful issues behind the story. The supporting cast, hard-working and touchingly earnest, are in many ways the stars of the show.

In the end, we care about these characters and their story, which is as relevant today as when Fiddler on the Roof first appeared off Broadway in 1964. Their far-from-certain fate matters to us, and resonates across the miles and history that both links us to and separates us from them.

Fiddler on the Roof runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast until February 15.