Spokane Civic Theatre kicks off its newest season tonight with a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” one of the most revered and oft-performed shows in Broadway history. Like Civic’s last season opener “Les Misérables,” this is a sweeping historical musical that nobody seems to tire of, and it will no doubt succeed in the hands of veteran director Troy Nickerson.
Premiering in 1964 with Zero Mostel in the starring role, the original production of “Fiddler” won a whopping nine Tony Awards and became the first Broadway show to exceed 3,000 performances. It was later adapted into a hugely successful, Oscar-winning film that replaced Mostel with Israeli actor Topol, who then became a sought-after Hollywood property. Even if you’ve never seen a stage production of “Fiddler” (or if you’ve somehow avoided the movie), you’re more than likely familiar with the story and can hum most of its songs.
Set in early 20th-century Russia, “Fiddler” concerns Tevye (played in the Civic production by Patrick McHenry-Kroetch), a poor Jewish milkman devoted to his strict religious beliefs and keeping his five daughters on the straight and narrow. While Tevye’s traditions remain steadfast, the social and political climate of his country is surging around him, and he functions not only as our entry point into the time period but as a symbol of an orthodox ideology that would soon come under violent attack.
“It’s the story of a man’s struggle with his traditions and his way of life and his love for his daughters,” Nickerson said, “and how far he can bend in his faith and his community.”
When adapting a theatrical property as revered as “Fiddler,” you can go one of two routes: either you rework it from the ground up and make it a completely new entity, or you stick to the book and remind everyone why they fell in love with the show in the first place. Nickerson says his version is faithful to the basic heart of the show, but there a few striking details that make it stand out.
“Of course, you want to stay true to it and keep the tradition of it, but you also want to find yourself in it and bring some new and inventive things to it, too,” he said. “It’s going to be a fresh look at ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ The sets are raw, simple sets – I have stick houses and a couple rows of trees. It’s very stripped down, a little edgier. I mean, my Tevye is 6-5. He’s not Zero Mostel, he’s not Topol, and we don’t want to be.
“It’s a very honest, beautiful telling of the story. But yes, it’s traditional at the same time.”
So why has “Fiddler on the Roof” endured as long as it has? Countless musicals from its era have come and gone, and yet this one refuses to become irrelevant, experiencing successful revivals in New York and London within the past 10 years. It’s difficult to pin down the exact reason, but it might have something to do with Tevye himself, the strong yet complicated center holding the story together.
“Tevye has a wonderful sense of humor, even when horrible things are happening to him,” Nickerson said. “The challenges of his life and what he’s been asked to accept and asked to do are pretty incredible. It’s a wonderful role.”
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