Fiddler on the Roof

Capitol Theatre, March 29

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Anthony Warlow as Tevye. Photo: Jeff Busby

Anthony Warlow is without question one of Australia’s greatest musical theatre performers – and he proves his star power once again with a sublime portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

The 1964 musical by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein is a much-loved classic for good reason. The glorious score with its stirring, achingly beautiful melodies includes songs such as If I Were a Rich Man, Tradition, Matchmaker and Sunrise Sunset.

Meanwhile, with the number of refugees in the world today, the theme of religious persecution and displacement feels as resonant and relevant as ever – though the story is as much about love, family and community, with plenty of humour as well as heartache.

Fiddler is set in 1905 in the small Jewish village of Anatevka in Tzarist Russia. Tevye is a poor milkman, with five daughters, who struggles to hold onto tradition in a changing world. This new Australian production, directed by Roger Hodgman, is fairly traditional and solidly staged without being particularly inventive but it is deeply felt and beautifully performed. Richard Roberts’ no frills set is simple but effective: a wooden box with cutout shapes for the houses, which are wheeled forward and spun around to reveal interiors.

Dana Jolly has done a fine job of reproducing Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, which feels wonderfully authentic to the time and culture. The ensemble dancing is terrific, exuding an exuberant, robust energy particularly in the wedding scene.

There are lively, new orchestrations with more of a folksy feel, and the sound from the ten-piece orchestra under musical director Kellie Dickerson is rich and vibrant.

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Sigrid Thornton with Anthony Warlow in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

Warlow’s Tevye is playful, sprightly and big-hearted, giving way to a moving gravitas. His acting and comic timing are impeccable. His wry conversations with God are accompanied by a lovely twinkle in the eye, while his outbursts of blustering anger are always tangibly underpinned by love and his own internal struggle. Meanwhile his vocals are masterful, the gorgeous tones flecked with the emotion of each lyric.

As his wife Golde, Sigrid Thornton has a small, light voice (made more obvious when she sings with Warlow) but she gives a strong characterisation even if it becomes a little strident at times. Teagan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers each create detailed characters as Tevye’s tradition-defying daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, and Swayne charms with a heartfelt, beautifully sung rendition of Far From The Home I Love.

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Jessica Vickers, Teagan Wouters and Monica Swayne as Chava, Tzeitel and Hodel. Photo: Jeff Busby

Blake Bowden brings charisma, fiery passion and lovely vocals to the role of Perchik, the idealistic, revolutionary student. Singer-songwriting Lior gives a gentle portrayal of the humble, hard-working tailor Motel and after a slightly hesitant start on opening night, his rendition of Miracle of Miracles shines, bringing a different vocal texture to the show.

Mark Mitchell is a strong presence, physically and vocally, as the wealthy butcher Lazar Wolfe playing him with such truth and depth that you empathise with the character much more than you might. On the other hand, Nicki Wendt’s broadly comic portrayal of the matchmaker Yente feels a little too much like a well-oiled stereotype lacking in genuine humanity and some of the humour goes begging.

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Mark Mitchell and Anthony Warlow. Photo: Jeff Busby

At the centre of it all is Warlow in a magnificent, unforgettable performance – one that musical theatre fans won’t want to miss.

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Capitol Theatre until May 8. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 24

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a complete delight from start to finish: a joyous night of perfectly cast, laugh-out-loud musical comedy.

Based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the show is set in the French Riviera where two conmen – the suave, sophisticated Lawrence Jameson and the younger, brasher Freddy Benson – compete to swindle $50,000 from a soap heiress called Christine Colgate. The loser must leave town.

Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbeck’s catchy, melodic songs are deliciously witty and full of double entendres as well as occasional outright bawdiness, all of which inspire genuine, giddy mirth. There is also some priceless playing with the fourth wall (“Did I miss a scene?” asks Lawrence at one point) along with other meta-theatrical in-jokes including references to the musicals Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady.

Lane’s book cleverly builds the comedy, which becomes ever more farcical as the two scam artists spin their web of deceit in the hope of ensnaring their target. In the hands of this fine cast every comic moment is mined for all it’s worth, without it ever becoming heavy-handed.

Tony Sheldon makes a triumphant homecoming in the role of Lawrence, returning especially to play the part from the US where he is now based after his Tony Award-nominated performance in the Broadway production of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert. With his twinkly, dimply charm and immaculate comic timing, Sheldon is a natural for the debonair, charismatic Lawrence. He nails every laugh and makes the most of the opportunity to use several ludicrously funny accents.

It’s a consummate performance, matched by Matt Hetherington who is the perfect foil as the vulgar upstart Freddy. Hetherington’s unrestrained physical comedy and whacky slapstick is inspired – particularly when he is playing Lawrence’s supposed loony, sex-mad brother Ruprecht. He is also in great voice.

Hetherington played Freddy with great success for The Production Company in Melbourne in 2009 and was offered it in a US touring production but was unable to accept as his working visa was about to run out. Now we see why; he’s brilliant.

Together he and Sheldon are dream casting, managing to make the two scoundrels a hugely likeable odd couple despite their dubious trade.

Amy Lehpamer, who hasn’t been seen in Sydney since Rock of Ages never got here, is gorgeous as the kind, pretty, clumsy Christine Colgate (who is also not quite what she seems) and sings superbly. Katrina Retallick is downright hilarious as Jolene Oakes, a crass lass from an oil-rich family in Oklahoma, who is determined to marry Lawrence and take him home to the ranch.

In a romantic sub-plot, Anne Wood is very funny as a droll, swinging American divorcée, who having been duped by Lawrence becomes romantically involved with his side-kick, the Chief of Police played by John Wood. Wood’s questionable French accent wanders between Europe and Australia, but he plays the character with understated charm.

Having cast the production in exemplary fashion (the ensemble is also terrific), Roger Hodgman’s excellent direction puts the focus firmly on the performers in a production that is deliciously light on its feet. There’s a modest but attractive, flexible set by Michael Hankin, elegant, colourful costumes by Teresa Negroponte, beautiful lighting by Nicholas Rayment and appealing choreography by Dana Jolly, while musical director Guy Simpson conducts the 18-piece orchestra with panache.

All in all, it’s a superb production of a hugely entertaining show that exudes the charm of classic musical theatre, and is oodles of fun.

Hats off to producers James Anthony Productions and George Youakim. It’s their first big production and they deserve to have a massive hit on their hands.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at the Theatre Royal until December 8.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on October 27.