– By Cate Marquis –
Humor, heart and “Tradition” all soar in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the new Broadway version of the beloved musical, now on stage at the Fabulous Fox Theater through Feb. 10. The irresistible song and dance number “Tradition” gets things off to an energetic start, in this tale of Tevye the dairyman in the little Jewish village of Anatevka in 1905 Russia.
The musical based on the Yiddish tales of Sholem Aleichem, sometimes called the “Jewish Mark Twain,” has long been a crowd-pleasing favorite. The new version is only slightly changed, mostly updates to dances, staging and sets, but just as full of humor, heart, and heartbreak, sprinkled with wonderful song and dance numbers.
“Without our traditions, we would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof,” Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov) says, explaining how he and the other residents of this poor little Jewish shtetl hang on in the precarious world of Czarist Russia. But it is a time of change and things are going to get even shakier for Anatevka, and Tevye.
This new production uses a framing device, of a contemporary man returning to the location, as a way to bring us back to the long-ago time and distant place. The part is played by the same actor who plays Tevye, Yehezkel Lazarov, suggesting the present-day character may be one of his descendants.
The success of this production largely hangs on who is playing Tevye, and Yehezkel Lazarov makes a fine one in this sparkling new production. The opening number gets things off the a rousing start, then leads into Tevye talking about his woes, as a poor dairyman with five daughters and no son. With no money for dowries, Tevye worries about their future.
Tevye’s humorous kvetching about life and his clever scheming and banter are the center pieces of this delightful musical. Tevye complains to the audience, and sometimes to God, about his troubles throughout the story, and Lazarov carries it off with charm and style.
Maite Uzal plays Tevye’s no-nonsense wife Golde, who keeps the household on track despite her husband’s daydreaming tendencies. Oldest daughters Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch), and Chava (Natalie Powers) jump at Mama’s barked commands, while the younger two, Shprintze (Danielle Allen) and Bielke (Emerson Glick), help where they can.
When the local matchmaker Yente (Carol Beaugard) turns up at their home just before the Sabbath starts, it sparks romantic dreams for second daughter Hodel and third daughter Chava “a perfect match” and the song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Oldest daughter Tzeitel is less eager to see the matchmaker. She and her childhood friend Motel (Jesse Weil), now a poor tailor, hope to marry – if Motel can work up the nerve to ask Tevye. Of course, it is a break with tradition but still they hope.
It is the first of many challenges to tradition, and conundrums, Tevye faces. Despite his talk of tradition, Tevye has a bit of a contrarion streak as well as a soft heart. Sometimes the results of his dilemmas are comic but not all, as Tevye tries to keep his footing in a shifting world. The dramatic mix, set against the backdrop of social upheaval in the early 20th century Russia, is part of the enduring strength of “Fiddler.”
Other cast members include Jonathan Von Mering as the wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf, Ryne Nardecchia as radical student newcomer Perchik and Paul Morland plays the fiddler.
The staging and sets are delightful. The dream sequence where Golde’s long-dead Grandma Tzeitel (Carolyn Keller) and other ghosts return, is particularly good. Other standouts are the big dance number scenes, in the tavern and at the wedding. Large rolling sets, representing their little farm house, barn, town tavern and other locations, come and go. Other sets representing the village houses descend from the fly above, and movable elements set in the stage floor to allow the characters to walk distances. It all creates the needed magic of time and place.
All the actors are good in their roles and it is an affecting tale, but the wonderful songs and dancing are another reason this musical has endured. The songs are memorable and familiar, and the singing is very good, but the showstoppers tend to be the big dance numbers. The lively energy of “Tradition” gets things off to a rousing start but wonderful, tuneful production numbers fill the whole musical.
Tevye sums up his dreams in “If I Was A Rich Man” a comic charmer with lyrics drawn directly from the Sholem Aleichem’s beloved tales. There is the tavern scene with the celebratory toasting song “L’Chaim (To Life)” followed by a sort of duel of traditional dancing between the Jewish patrons and non-Jewish ones, featuring Cossack hopak dancing. At the wedding, the sentimental “Sunrise, Sunset” sums up the feelings of many parents of grown children. The wedding also features the spectacular “Bottle Dance,” where men dance with bottles balanced on their heads. The dance is not actually traditional one but the creation of choreographer Jerome Robbins, based on a dancer he saw at a Jewish wedding.
“Fiddler” ends on a bittersweet note, which is wrapped up by a return to the present-day visitor, followed by an ovation-worthy return to the stage of the whole cast.
This splendid production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF is a not-to-be-missed delight, well worth braving cold or snowy weather for a trip to the Fabulous Fox.
© Cate Marquis