“Fiddler on the Roof” originally premiered on Broadway in 1964, during what is generally considered the Golden Age of theater, and swept the Tony Awards that year on its way to becoming one of the longest-running productions of all time. When you tackle a show as time-tested as “Fiddler,” there’s always the risk that it could come across as dusty and outdated, but Spokane Civic Theatre’s production is a surprisingly fleet three hours of song and dance.
As directed by Troy Nickerson and Heather McHenry-Kroetch, it’s brimming over with the energy and passion of the characters at its center.
It’s set in the small Russian village of Anatevka in the early 20th century, when the country is on the brink of revolution. Tevye (Patrick McHenry-Kroetch) is a destitute Jewish milkman living with his doting wife Golde (Melody Deatherage) and his five daughters – Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze and Bielke. He’s a man of faith whose life is dictated by his strict Jewish beliefs. Although he’s more or less content, he still dreams of prosperity.
Tzeitel (Emily Jones), Tevye and Golde’s eldest daughter, is now old enough to be married, and Tevye has arranged for her to marry Lazar Wolf (Kim Berg), an older butcher whose first wife died. But Tzeitel goes against her father’s wishes and begins a relationship with Motel (David Hardie), the local tailor. Similarly, Tevye’s second-oldest daughter Hodel (Gracee McClellan) has fallen in love with Perchik (Malachi Burrow), an educated Bolshevik whose idea of social justice and equality challenges Tevye’s philosophies.
The show’s attitudes toward faith and religion – especially in regard to the strictures imposed upon women in Orthodox Judaism – are surprisingly progressive for the time it was written. The book (by Joseph Stein) and songs (music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) never treat Judaism as a plot device but rather as a fact: They examine how individual generations interpret the religion differently, which tenets of the belief system matter most to them and whether one can still have faith when deviating from a scripture.
The Civic’s interpretation of “Fiddler” understands the complex ideas at work and intelligently explores the themes of doubt and devoutness at the heart of the story. It’s also impressive from a technical standpoint: This is a big, sweeping show that requires a huge cast, but Nickerson, McHenry-Kroetch and their crew have wisely approached the production with a stark, minimalistic style: The stage is mostly bare and the sets have a sharp, expressionistic look to them. It’s a striking design.
There’s also a memorable nightmare sequence in the middle of the show that requires a lot of pyrotechnics (during Friday night’s performance, one of the wheels on the movable bed snapped off, and yet the production continued without incident), and the show’s famous wedding sequence, in which a moment of celebration and liberation is interrupted by senseless violence, is a stirring set piece.
The cast, too, is terrific – Jones and McClellan as the oldest daughters do nice, nuanced work, as does Burrow as the passionate, revolutionary thinker – but Patrick McHenry-Kroetch and Deatherage are the real standouts. One of the show’s best moments is also one of its quietest: Tevye and Golde have been together for 25 years, their marriage having been arranged when they were young, and they perform the playful but tender ballad “Do You Love Me?” They question whether blind devotion is the same thing as romance, and if they truly love each other in the purest sense of the word.
That song is probably the most intimate distillation of the moral tug of war at the core of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and it’s why the show works as well as it does. Tevye represents an ideology that is being tested, both by the culture’s changing views toward his religion and the ruthless czar’s persecution of the Jews. Much like the titular fiddler, he teeters on the edge of his roof and yet continues to play his tune, resolute in the knowledge that his faith is unshakable.
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