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It is not news to anyone that “Fiddler on the Roof” is a masterpiece of a show. The original 1964 production by songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick with a book by Joseph Stein won nine Tony Awards and remains one of the top 20 longest-running shows on Broadway with over 3,200 performances.
It is an enduring example of how universality can be illuminated by specificity. Its ability to celebrate and honor the Jewish culture it represents while also transcending it, and therefore resonate with audiences of different faiths and backgrounds has made it a classic. “Fiddler on the Roof,” set in early 1900s Russia, asks what it means to hold onto tradition, faith and family in a changing world for better and worse.
The most recent Broadway revival directed by Bartlett Sher (and the sixth time this show has hit Broadway), now on tour across the country, has arrived at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. In this production, the Jewish village of Anatevka becomes an enchanted fairytale-like haven where an enduring belief system with abiding values and practices holds everything together. Tevye’s family home, designed by Michael Yeargan, looks straight out of a storybook with its little brown facade and forced-perspective walls, oversized stone oven and simple wooden furniture. Donald Holder’s lights color the set in saturated purples, yellows and blues which elevate the fantasy. This whimsical world is like a bubble that we see inevitably popped as a harsh reality comes crashing in.
Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov stars as Tevye, the dedicated, loving patriarch of his family of seven. Tevye, although poor and overworked, prides himself on his familial bond, his devout relationship with God, and the customs that prove to be the most certain and reliable aspect of life.
Tevye has five daughters that he is tasked with pairing off into comfortable and stable marriages. Lazarov's Tevye is fun-loving and sarcastic, and he befriends the audience almost instantly. He remains charming even as he starts to crumble as each of his three eldest daughters defies his wishes by marrying the men they want to rather than follow the tradition of arranged marriage. Maite Uzal balances out Lazarov’s goofy energy as the level-headed Golde, Tevye’s wife.
Although they had absolutely lovely voices, handling the beloved trio “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” with ease, the three eldest sisters — Tzeitel played by Kelly Gabrielle Murphy, Hodel by Ruthy Froch, and Chava by Noa Luz Barenblat — were a bit gentle and precious with their performances. These young women are revolutionaries in their own village. They do the scariest and bravest thing they could possibly do — resist centuries-long expectations in an effort to live their individual lives the way they envision them. I wish they infused more ferocity, tenacity, even a little edge into the three sisters so that they resonated more deeply with 2020 audiences.
This production is polished and I appreciate that musical theatre tidiness. Cheeks are rosy and lips are pink. Every costume piece is perfectly tailored and coordinated and each character is practically floating. But the essence of the people in “Fiddler on the Roof” is down-to-earth and homegrown. They live modest lives and work incredibly hard. The younger characters are daring and bold, pushing the boundaries of the status quo. I longed for a little more rawness and fortitude rooted in the truths of this community and their deep-seated desires. I find that this is a trap that big musicals fall into. Sometimes, they’re just a little too pretty.
Of course, we can accept the clean-cut, shiny form of musical theater for what it is. It obviously works and is delightful. But, it’s possible to connect more truthfully to that real human grit without sacrificing a refined overall performance. The acting could have really filled the story with more truth if it had the same natural and grounded quality as the dancing.
The highlight of this production is the impeccable work of Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. It’s a notable departure from the original work of Jerome Robbins whose choreography and direction defined “Fiddler on the Roof.” Shechter, born and raised in Israel and now the acclaimed UK-based founder and artistic director of the Hofesh Shechter Company, has taken a more organic, folk-inspired approach to the traditional Jewish dance. It’s looser and freer than the original but still packs a huge punch. It’s precise when it needs to be.
There’s both weight and freedom in what Shechter has created. The gravity in the stomps is communal and strong, while the buoyancy in the dancers’ arms is both celebratory and longing of faith and connection to God. The movement lived fully in every body part of each dancer from their appendages to the soles of their feet.
The hit opening “Tradition” was a celebration of culture, community and ritual through movement. There was solidarity in every synchronized sequence. I wish I could have rewound “Tradition” and watched it again.
Shechter stays true to Robbins’ iconic bottle dance during Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel’s wedding celebration with her new husband Motel, where a select group of male guests glides about with glass bottles balanced atop their wide-brimmed hats. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still impressive and mesmerizing. Costume designer Catherine Zuber dresses the men in the traditional long black coats with a silky sheen so the dancers practically glisten in the light — a visual gem of the show.
The production really comes together in the final moments. I didn’t fully understand the overall vision — the enchanted storybook lens of the first act — until I saw it all get pulled out from under Tevye and the life he’s built for himself and his family. His daughter Chava has turned against him to follow her own heart and marry outside their faith. The people of Anatevka are forced out of their homes due to political and social unrest. The lights become bleak and nondescript, faces become blurry as they fade into silhouette, and the trees are now merely cold branches.
The contrast between the sanctuary of established tradition to an uncertain displaced future became evident. The reality of a community strong in faith and culture shifts drastically. They are now refugees who must find new roots. Tevye, who appears in the closing moment in a modern red windbreaker (a subtle, yet resonant visual cue that Tevye is a refugee of today), places a hand on the fiddler’s shoulder and follows, bestowing all of his trust in the uncertainty of life ahead.
“Fiddler on the Roof” continues at the Emerson Colonial Theatre through March 8.
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