Once considered, “too Jewish,” for contemporary audiences, the revival production of Fiddler On the Roof is authentically Jewish in every aspect. Steeped in rich history and Yiddish tradition, Fiddler explores the many concepts of change, breaking custom and tradition, and centers around the community of a chosen people that for centuries has been displaced from their homes and endured religious persecution and oppression.
From its cultural dances to its Yiddish and Talmudic references, Fiddler On the Roof is an astounding 58th year musical production that is proving to withstand the test of time. Furthermore, it’s a prevailing story of resilience amidst the seasons of life, and a wistful reminder of the Jewish community that resided in the Pale settlement shtetls during the time of Imperial Russia. Like a fiddler playing precariously on a roof, life hangs in the balance. To life, l’chaim!
Fiddler sparks inspiration with its groundbreaking portrayal of Teyve and His Daughters, a collection of short story adaptations by Sholem Aleichem. With the book by Joseph Stein, and music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the show is an iconic favorite in the musical theatre genre. From the choreography to the cast, Israeli cultural is influential and predominant throughout. The cast lends the show that much more authenticity. Many of the principals, swings and understudies have Jewish heritage, and are able to proudly tell the stories of their ancestors on stage. Yehezkel Lazarov who plays Tevye hails from Israel, reprising the role for his third season with Fiddler.
Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter executes Jewish folk dance beautifully and fluidly. Musical choreographer of the original production Jerome Robbins (Westside Story, The Pajama Game,) himself was Jewish, although he tried to keep that part of his life hidden for many years. During his research for Fiddler he attended Jewish weddings and was inspired by the folk dances he witnessed, along with the renowned “bottle dance” that later came to be so iconic to the show. If anything, go to see the vibrant dancing, and this particular dance. The bottle dance is the most effortless feat of the night, with gliding and whirling action that will make you tap your toes.
Harkening back to a golden age musical era, company number “Tradition” details the various classifications in the fictional village of Anatevka, from the sons and the daughters, to the mamas and the papas who make the rules, including whom their daughters should marry. Sons go to Hebrew school and are matched with wives; daughters stay home and tend to the cooking and cleaning with their expected womanly duties. Jews always keep their heads covered and wear a prayer shawl, showing their never-ending devotion to God. They read the Holy Book, and tend to their land in whatever trade they have pursued.
Tevye in this case is a dairy farmer and longs for his daughters to have a better life and marry into wealthy households. He secures the betrothal of his eldest daughter Zteitel to the butcher Lazar Wolf, but unbeknownst to him she is in love with the tailor Motel Kamzoil. There are so many good songs in this show. Motel’s “Miracle of Miracles,” is another charmingly wonderful number where he professes his love to Zteitel, comparing the miracle of their engagement to the bible stories of Leah, Rachel and Jacob.
Sans the meddling matchmaker Yente (Brooke Wetterhahn), the characters are not just caricatures of the Jewish stock character trope, but are fully Jewish or Yiddishkeit. Tevye loves to kvetch and complain to God — about his horse; his lack of fortune. “If I Were A Rich Man,” is another showstopper that most of the audience will be familiar with. His daughters’ sisterly dynamic brings a girlish and youthful charm to “Matchmaker,” when they contemplate marriage and their options without a dowry or wealth.
Though at times Lazarov’s performance felt slightly disconnected, his very strong penchant for humor and timing is without a doubt the perfect schtick. Kelly Gabrielle Murphy as Tzeitel is demure, displaying a lovely, lilting soprano voice. Ruthy Froch as Hodel plays a no-nonsense woman who defies the cultural norms of match matching and even dares to dance with a man. Hauntingly beautiful is the ballad that she sings to her beloved fiancée, the scholar Perchik, (Solomon Reynolds) who finds himself in political turmoil and is exiled to Siberia. She later joins him. Reynolds is an opera virtuoso who has performed the works of La Traviata, Don Giovanni, and Barbiere di Siviglia. With his clear tenor resonance, Reynold’s crossover musical theatre performance as Perchik is one to look forward to.
A personal favorite scene of the night was the performance of Rosie Webber as Fruma-Sarah in “A Blessing On Your Head,” (mazel-tov), the apparition of the wife of Lazar Wolf who appears to Tevye in an ominous dream. Webber was spot on with her impressive vocals in her characterization of the towering, vindictive spirit.
While with the first act there is celebration, the second act takes a much more somber turn. 1905 Russia was a volatile time to be Jewish, with the eviction of Jews from the Pale, ushering in the revolution with the eventual overthrow of the tsar government and pogroms that would soon follow. The second act is admittedly gut-wrenching with Tevye’s decision to forsake his daughter Chava (Noa Luz Barenblat,) when she chooses to completely break from tradition and marry outside the faith. This is symbolized by the thin remnant of a scrim backdrop stretched across the stage during a dance, a tangible cloud of the past just beyond his reach in his refusal to acknowledge her.
The eviction of Tevye and his family from their homeland is a poignant moment that nearly foreshadows what is to come for the Jewish community post the Russian revolution. Fiddler On the Roof celebrates the nostalgia of the Old Country, the idyllic life that was led, and of course, age old traditions.
Fiddler On the Roof runs at the Orpheum Theatre until February 13th. Masks are required as Covid protocols are enforced.