There is something comforting about “Fiddler on the Roof.” For nearly 60 years, this musical comedy about an exasperated Jewish milkman in tsarist Russia who clings to tradition while facing monumental change has charmed audiences with its wit, heart and iconic music.
It’s one of those pieces of theater that has permeated pop culture so thoroughly – through its long-running 1964 Broadway production and subsequent revivals, the Oscar-winning 1971 film adaptation by Norman Jewison or countless high school stagings – that even if you’ve managed to never see it, you could probably hum the opening notes of “If I Were a Rich Man” or sing along with “Sunrise, Sunset.”
These days, stepping into a theater to see a good production of “Fiddler” is like wrapping up in a warm blanket, a cozy, familiar bulkhead against the troubles of the real world. The non-Equity touring production that opened Tuesday night at First Interstate Center for the Arts in quite ably lives up to that standard.
Based on the 2015 Broadway revival directed by Bartlett Sherr, this “Fiddler” succeeds thanks in no small part to Yehezkel Lazarov, the Israeli actor who plays Tevye, the hard-working milkman who lives in the Jewish shtetl of Anatevka with his quick-witted wife Golde (Maite Uzal) and their five daughters.
Lazarov brings a light, easy touch to Tevye as he debates with God and himself about finding good husbands for his three oldest daughters, Tzeitel (Kelly Gabrielle Murphy), Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Chava (Noa Luz Barenblat), laments his poverty and struggles to tell Golde a piece of bad news. But he shows poignancy and heartbreak when it becomes clear to him that his world will be irrevocably changed.
The show opens with Lazarov, dressed in a modern red coat, standing on a mostly empty stage. A faded sign reads “Anatevka,” and the Fiddler (Ali Arian Molaei) plays the iconic notes of the show’s main theme. Soon the man transitions into Tevye and is joined by the whole cast for a rousing opening number, “Tradition.” In this case, tradition refers not only to the family’s deeply held faith and belief in community, but also a view of the role of women in the world.
Tevye and Golde run into that almost immediately as their eldest daughter, Tzeitel, chafes at the notion of being married off to someone she hardly knows – in this case, the butcher Lazar Wolf (Andrew Hendrick), who is many decades her senior. She wants to marry the man she loves, Motel the tailor (Daniel Kushner). When Tevye agrees, the flood gates open for her sisters to make similar choices, each increasingly more problematic.
Changing traditions of love are not the only belief systems that are being questioned in the early 20th century. Perchik (Solomon Reynolds), a student from Kyiv, brings some radical ideas to Anatevka – yes, girls deserve to learn, too! – and proves irresistible to Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel. Political pressure and religious differences are a constant, as well, represented by the constable (Jason Thomas Sofage) and his band of cossacks, namely Fyedka (Jack O’Brien), who catches the eye of the third daughter, Chava.
All of this comes to a point during Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding. The day is celebrated during the beautiful “Sunrise, Sunset,” and the bottle dance remains impressive. Tongues wag during an act of perceived impropriety, and a seemingly random act of cruelty and disrespect casts a pallor on the day – and indeed on the future of Anatevka’s Jewish community.
The performances Tuesday evening were strong across the board. Lazarov is utterly charming throughout, and especially in “If I Were a Rich Man,” with his resonate voice filled with joy and hope. The daughters are especially appealing during their performance of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” The men of the company have a rousing good time as they celebrate a potential marriage in “To Life,” and “Tevye’s Dream” is a riot.
The staging is refreshing in its simplicity. Except for one very tall ghost, the stagecraft is low key. There’s a cart, which Lazarov pulls himself (as Tevye’s horse seems to be constantly injured), some trees that move to help denote changing locations, and some simple backdrops. There are no pyrotechnics, revolving stages, flying fiddlers or raising platforms, thus helping the audience keep its focus on the human story at its core.
By the end of this “Fiddler,” as Anatevka’s Jewish community begins its long march out of Russia, Lazarov dons his red coat, signaling a return to modern times. The final images of darkened figures slowly walking across the stage are clearly meant to evoke the refugee crisis that gripped Europe in the 2010s. That one can draw parallels to another more current crisis – that of refugees from Afghanistan – is a heartbreaking reminder that “Fiddler on the Roof” remains relevant, and that while things do indeed change, many things do not.
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