Review: Fiddler on the Roof

I’ll admit this up front: I was never a big fan of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The musicals I’ve never connected with are few, with FIDDLER and HAIR being two popular titles that I’ve never truly enjoyed. Both have some great songs, to be certain, but when I’ve seen these shows performed live, they never reached me in the ways that LES MISERABLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, or COME FROM AWAY did. So when Broadway Across America announced that FIDDLER would be part of this season, it was the lowest show on my priority list.

The tour that visited The Hobby Center last week was supposed to come here in 2020 but was postponed by the pandemic. This touring version is based on the 2015 Broadway revival directed by Bartlett Sher. I’ve always been incredibly impressed with his work, especially his fresh takes on classic shows. His SOUTH PACIFIC was stunning, and his THE KING AND I was also a revelation. So my hesitancy about this new FIDDLER was tempered by my love for his previous works and the hopes that he might find a way for me to better understand FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. (Side note: He is working with Aaron Sorkin on a new version of CAMELOT, set to arrive on Broadway this fall.)

I’m very pleased to say that he did just as I expected. I have a new love for FIDDLER that I never had before, and although I cannot fully understand why, the credit must at least partially go to Sher’s direction.

For those unfamiliar with the basics of the story, FIDDLER is the story of Tevye, a dairyman in the village of Anatevka in Ukraine, desperately trying to hold on to the traditions of his Jewish faith as the world around him closes in and new ideas test his beliefs. He has five daughters and while he wants to see them happy and married, he is challenged by each as they find husbands that push the boundaries of his faith and traditions. When the Tsar of Russia threatens to claim their land, they must make a difficult decision regarding their future.

Sher uses a framing device for the story, one which I suspect many audience members may have missed due to its subtlety. The show opens with the actor playing Tevye in a modern winter coat, reading a book. He makes it clear that this book is the story we will be seeing. As he removes the coat and reveals his tallit and its tzitzit, we are taken back to the days of the story. At the conclusion of the show, we see this man again briefly. Is he a relative of Tevye, perhaps a grandson? Or is he simply a modern day Ukrainian reading this tragic story? Either way, it’s a clever start that welcomes our modern sensibilities into this classic story. It also changes our perspective slightly without altering the overall narrative of the piece. He also uses a bare stage at the beginning and the end, symbolizing the villagers starting from nothing and (sadly) ending that way as well. The fiddler, a symbol of uncertainty and danger, is present in many scenes including the opening and ending, as Tevye says, “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck.” One change from Broadway is that the Fiddler, who was levitated using wires in New York, here simply walks about the stage or observes from the sides of the stage.

The cast is uniformly solid, led by a wonderful performance by Yehezkel Lazarov, an Israeli actor, as Tevye. He finds all the emotions in this role, from hilarious moments to heartbreaking defeats. My only quibble with him would be that he was a bit unintelligible during one of the signature songs, “If I Were a Rich Man.” I felt like that number didn’t quite land as it should, although he more than made up for this as the show progressed. I was also very impressed by Brooke Wetterhahn as Yente, the matchmaker. She was brilliant and played much older (in a good way) than her likely twenty-something years. Although there are five daughters of Tevye, three are the main focus and all three were excellent. Of the three, I found Noa Luz Barenblat to be my favorite as Chava. She had a beautiful singing voice and strong presence in her scenes. I also enjoyed Daniel Kushner’s take on Motel, the tailor in love with Tzeitel (Kelly Gabrielle Murphy), and Solomon Reynolds as Perchik, a radical student with his eyes on Hodel (Ruthy Froch).

The sets and lighting are both strong, especially for a non-union tour. One of the smartest choices in this new production is the decision to remove most of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and replace it with more authentic Jewish dances created by Hofesh Shechter. You can still see elements of Robbins’ brilliant work here, but adding the true traditional elements really grounds the story more than before.

I think, perhaps, the reason I never connected to FIDDLER before is that this show requires some life experience before the true impact can be understood. I think the current situation in Ukraine also made the show seem more timely than ever, a fact that was punctuated during the curtain call when Lazarov read a statement from the cast dedicating this and all performances to the people of Ukraine. They are currently perched metaphorically on their own roofs, playing the fiddle and hoping they don’t end up with broken necks.

****1/2 out of *****
“Fiddler on the Roof”
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Broadway Across America – The Hobby Center
Houston run has concluded
Photo: Yehezkel Lazarov as Tevye, Maite Uzal as Golde, and the company of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Broadway Across America at The Hobby Center.

One comment

  1. mphtheatregirl · May 4, 2022

    Well, I love Fiddler on the Roof- saw the stage show back in 2019 in St. Louis

    Liked by 2 people

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