Both 2005’s Christmas show, Promises Promises, and the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins earlier this year, were somehow dwarfed by the wide open expanse of the venue, the way the audience seemed to tower over the stage rather than the other way round.
Both were fantastic shows, but there was always the sneaking suspicion that to get that Big Broadway Show feeling, you need a hell of a lot more energy on stage, and the sound had to be Big. More volume, more chaos, more dancers, and an almost unfeasibly charismatic lead – that’s what the Crucible demands, and this year Sheffield Theatre’s have delivered in spades, for Fiddler on the Roof is an unequivocal triumph.
From the start, the whole stage bristles with a chaotic, vodka-infused energy that Sholem Aleichem’s characters would have felt right at home in. Of course Fiddler on the Roof opens with its most famous tunes, so it has to start with a bang. Tradition, Matchmaker and If I Were a Rich Man immediately show that both the full chorus and the solo numbers have every intention of meeting the acoustical demands of the theatre, whilst upping the ante in terms of the choreography, the staging, the sheer energy on display.
More than that, though, it’s got Henry Goodman. God knows where this man summons up the vigour to put on such a dazzling, constantly scene-stealing performance. As the troubled milkman and father Tevye, he puts sheer energy above precision, so his Russian falters occasionally, but the charm never slips, always commanding the stage, and our sympathies. It’s more than just a perfect piece of casting, Goodman is probably the most captivating performer I’ve ever seen in a musical, in a role that seems made for him.
The set pieces are brilliantly choreographed too. From the wickedly funny dream sequence where the Butcher’s dead wife flies down on to a stage bathed in garish green and purple, to the playful antics and less playful brawling at the wedding, the show is big, bold and intoxicating.
In the second half the scene transitions are made in to a little specatacle of their own, with the rotating set in the middle of the stage going at breakneck speed as the cast deperately dash on and off to get set up for the next scene. Along with the ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-them’ acrobatics played out by the Fiddler, these were just some of the neat little touches that seemed to be everywhere in the production. It’s a sign of real professionalism and attention to detail, and it pays off handsomely.
In some ways, this Fiddler on the Roof is a critic’s nightmare – it’s just too damn good, and it doesn’t take five hundred words to say that. In theory you could criticize it for being such a traditional production (for it is that), however a traditional production done this well doesn’t need novelty to justify its existence. The intention is clear – Sam West’s programme notes introduce Fiddler simply as the ‘Christmas show for all the family’. I hope he’s under no illusions though – as this Christmas show sets some formidable standards for the rest of the season to meet.