Review: “Fiddler on the Roof”

The cast of Fiddler on the Roof

RECOMMENDED

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre,
151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Jan. 6
Tickets: $25-$98
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

There are several ways to look at “Fiddler on the Roof.”

On the one hand, the multiple Tony Award-winning 1964 musical by Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) is a testament and tribute to the strength and resilience of the Jewish community living in a rural village in Tsarist Russia circa 1905.

On the other hand, it’s a rather romanticized account of people who in actuality endured abject poverty, plagued by persecution and pogroms until ultimately driven from their home. When it opened, some critics considered it culturally sanitized, and Philip Roth called it “shtetl kitsch” in The New Yorker. Unlike in Sholem Aleichem’s stories on which it is based, for example, the local Russian officer is portrayed somewhat sympathetically. And at the end, the family is headed off to a new life, most of them in America, rather than Tevye being left alone, his wife dead and his daughters scattered.

On the other hand — as Tevye the dairyman might say in his one-sided conversations with God — “Fiddler” provides a knowing picture of a changing way of life, the advantages and drawbacks of those changes, and their effects on Tevye, his family and the village. It is also replete with memorable songs that are beautifully integrated into the story, among them “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Far From the Home I Love.”

The musical has been revived many times, and the touring production at the Cadillac Palace Theatre is the highly praised 2015 Broadway version directed by Bartlett Sher. He keeps the basic story — not much can or should be done to change it, really — but introduces a new frame designed, I think, to put it in perspective.

The show opens with a single modern-day man in a red parka holding a book in his hand and contemplating the massive gray wall of Michael Yeargan’s set, which has a small sign saying “Anatevka” at one end. Before we can figure out if he’s a tourist with a guidebook at the railway station for a long-gone town or reading a volume of Aleichem’s tales — or some combination of both — he takes off the jacket, places it on the single chair, and morphs into Teyve in traditional earth-toned garb (costumes by Catherine Zuber). He explains the meaning of the Fiddler (Paul Morland), who lurks about rather than ever actually being perched precariously on a roof, and the townspeople gather for the dance-filled number “Tradition.”

This opening is paired with a striking ending of the two men joining a Bergman-esque procession of figures, seen in silhouette, moving slowly in a circle, presumably the circle of life, though it arguably would be more logical to have them leaving since they’re being forced to evacuate.

In between, the by-now familiar saga unfolds as Tevye finds his authority undermined in succession by the three eldest of his five daughters. He questions God about this and other matters, including his lame horse and lack of money, while contending with his nagging wife and civic responsibilities. Israeli  actor Yehezkel Lazarov, departing from such larger-than-life predecessors as Zero Mostel (the original Tevye) and the mononymic Topol, is comparatively understated in the role, bringing much humor and believable emotion to his musings, anger, and suffering.

Tevye’s first fatherly challenge occurs after his wife Golde, portrayed as such a harridan by Maite Uzal that she comes across as the mother and spouse from hell, meets with stereotypical matchmaker Yente (Carol Beaugard) to arrange a marriage for oldest daughter Tzeitel (Mel Weyn) to the much older butcher, Lazar Wolf (Jonathan von Mering, sounding like “The Godfather”). Tevye doesn’t like Wolf in the first place but negotiates with him in the increasingly drunken tavern scene, only to learn from Tzeitel that she and the poor, painfully timid tailor Motel (Jesse Weil, over-the-top at times) are in love and want to get married.

They beg his permission, which is more deference than Tevye gets from second daughter, Hodel (Ruthy Froch), who agrees to wed the radical teacher Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia), asking her father only for his blessing. Then bookish third daughter Chava (Natalie Powers) pushes the limits of tradition too far for her simple but wise dad by falling in love with a gentile, Fyedka (Joshua Logan Alexander).

The tensions of life in Anatevka come to a head in “The Wedding,” the scene that closes Act One. The Rabbi (Michael Hegarty) officiates over the traditional ceremony between Tzeitel and Motel, but Perchik breaks with tradition by crossing the barrier between men and women (not delineated too clearly here) to ask Hodel to dance, and Tevye follows suit by asking Golde. More disruptively, Wolf erupts with rage about the broken marriage contract, and the party ends abruptly when the Tzarist authorities led by the Constable (Jeff Brooks) stage an incident he’d warned Tevye was impending.

Before the violence, though, is one of the highlights of the evening, the bottle dance. Created by Jerome Robbins, the original choreographer and director, it was redone by Hofesh Shechter for 2015 and recreated for the road by Christopher Evans. The male dancer’s skill here is thrilling, but the same cannot be said for all of the dancing, which is longer on exuberance than precision. On the other hand, a few numbers are spot-on.

Music supervisor Ted Sperling is responsible for the new orchestrations, and though they’re serviceable, nine musicians do not a full orchestra make.

Yeargan’s set design, a bit abstract but very functional, seems to take its inspiration from Marc Chagall. Clusters of houses illuminated by lighting designer Donald Holder float overhead at times, for instance.  Zuber’s apropos costumes are enhanced by Tom Watson’s hair and wig design, and the sound designer is Scott Lehrer.

If I had to sum up this “Fiddler on the Roof” in a few words, I’d say it’s entertaining, instructive and inconsistent.