Fiddler on the Roof
"Fiddler on the Roof" has been a mainstay of American musical theatre since its debut in 1964, but the new production by Theater of the Stars breathes new life into the old warhorse. Although I was not expecting it, I found myself enthralled, enchanted, and delighted by the production.
Tom Alan Robbins' displays a deft touch with his portrayal of Tevye, a figure who is onstage nearly throughout the play. Tevye can be played as a too much a buffoon, or a figure of tragedy, but Robbins avoids those extremes.
Instead, Robbins' Tevye is an everyman, a man who clings to tradition (as explained in the rousing number "Tradition," at the beginning of the show) while being forced to accept that the world of the Jew in Tsarist Russia is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof.
The play is based on a story by Sholom Aleichem, a Jewish writer who was writing in the late 19th century who clearly understands small Russian village life. What made the play such a hit on Broadway was that its themes are universal -- love, marriage, poverty, religion, politics. A parent who is traditional, teenage children who embrace new ideas, the changing roles of women in society; these are integral to the show.
It is the story of a Russian milkman, Tevye, who works hard to support his wife and five daughters in a very traditional Jewish community, circa 1905. Tevye relies on religious and cultural traditions that are integral to his life, but his daughters adopt a more modern attitude when it comes to choosing husbands.
The production at the Fox Theatre is always lively. Dancing and movement fill the stage. My favorite dance is the exuberant "To Life," in which all the characters of every age sing and dance in an extended celebration of the news that Tevye's oldest daughter is to marry the town butcher, and features very authentic looking Russian dancing.
The sets are worth a mention, because they are traditional, yet they enhance the action rather than weighing it down. The backdrops look very much like a paintings by Marc Chagall, and I learned in researching it that Chagall's painting of a fiddler on a roof inspired the show's title. (It certainly sounds more poetic than "Tevye and His Daughters," the title of the original story.)
There are only two slightly negative things I can say about the show. The costumes are colorful, yet authentic. The only jarring note, to me, was the bright colors of the non-Jewish Russian soldiers, one of whom wore a bright green shirt that looked like it belonged in a Tide commercial.
There were some technical glitches as well, with microphones cutting in and out, but the impact of those was minimal. These were minor annoyances and in no way diminished my enjoyment of the show.
As I was watching the play I was struck by the fact that even though this story is more than a hundred years old and centers on Jewish life in Russia, there are definitely parallels to life today, in the United States. Advocates of gay marriage fight for acceptance. Traditional marriage is being redefined all over this land, as Americans confront the conflict between traditionalists and forward thinkers.
Tevye is forced to accept the idea that his daughters will marry men not chosen for them by a traditional matchmaker, but will instead choose their own partners. Everyone in the audience can identify with Tevye's oldest daughter Tzeitel, who despairs at the thought of marrying Lazar Wolfe, a man older than her father, when her heart is set on Motel, the tailor. After one daughter, Chava, marries outside the faith, he declares she is dead to him. How might Tevye have acted if his daughter had said she wanted to marry another woman?
I like the fact that the story has some surprising twists. A staunch religious traditionalist, Tevye changes his mind as he sings poignantly about the look in Tzeitel's eyes when she talks about marrying Motel. But Tevye then has to worry about how to tell his wife that their oldest daughter wants to marry for love, not the wealthy butcher chosen for her.
So he invents a dream visitation by Tzeitel's long-dead grandmother, and convinces his superstitious wife that only by marrying Motel will Tzeitel find happiness. It's a creative way to overcome rigid thinking, and there's a lesson there for all those who seek to expand the boundaries of what society will accept.
The exuberance of the first act of "Fiddler" disappears by Act 2, which is much more somber. The end of Act 1 sees the Russian authorities causing "mischief" at a wedding, which portrays the uncertainty and oppression which were common for the Jewish community in that time and place. Act 2 sees the older daughters getting married, and finally Tevye and his family are forced to leave their village. The ending may seem sad to some, but I see it as hopeful. Tevye is headed to America, the land of new ideas and opportunities.
"Fiddler on the Roof" is playing through July 24 at the Fox Theater, 660 Peachtree Street, NE. Tickets $60-30. For info and tickets call 404-881-2100 or visit http://www.foxtheatre.org/ or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/114694/843989