10/7/2023 FIDDLER ON THE ROOF City Springs Theatre Company
In 2011, I criticized touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, taking it to task for failing to bring anything new to the piece. Yes, it was wonderfully performed and carried all the joys and tears that come with a traditional staging of the show, but it left me with a “Been There Seen That” feeling, the kind that often comes with a decades-old show that has seen too many iterations in too short a time. The feeling that comes when a production team attempts to “freeze in amber” a staging in a mistaken attempt to “recreate the original.”
Thankfully, director Shuler Hensley and his creative team and cast at City Springs Theatre Company have chosen to start with a blank slate, bringing a completely original set, staging and attitude to the show without sacrificing its innate virtues and joys and tears. And the result is a breathtaking experience, a reminder of why this show is so popular and why it is consistently revised. And, for me, it was moving in compelling and surprisingly new ways.
The play’s construction (book by Jospeh Stein) is brilliant in its commingling of several Sholem Aleichem stories into one unified (and thematically whole) story. Reading the twenty-seven separate stories of Tevye’s Daughters is more like reading a novel than an anthology, as each story shows us a new aspect of Tevye and his family and friends. (The stories of the two youngest daughters are as compelling – and more tragic – as the stories of Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava that we see dramatized here – I strongly recommend you track them down.)
As a bonus, the music (by Jerry Book) and lyrics (by Sheldon Harnick) evoke the time and place and culture, and, despite our familiarity with all of the songs, still seem fresh and enchanting.
If you don’t know (and if you’re reading this, you probably do), Fiddler on the Roof is about a poor milkman in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russian shtetl. He is our guide to his village (Anatevka), his family (wife and five daughters), his friends, and his traditions. He relies on the local matchmaker to bring husbands for his daughters, until they break with tradition and want to choose husbands on their own. Each of his daughters pulls him away from his paradigms a little bit more. He himself begins to see their point-of-view (the song “Do You Love Me?” to his wife Golde is indicative of this), but there is a limit that seems to crush his spirit entirely. It is at this point that his whimsical conversations with God stop. And it’s not long before history adds to the burden as the Jews are ordered out of the region.
This is as much the story of the new century as it is about one man. Political changes in Russia are about to overwhelm these characters, and, with our perfect historical hindsight, we recognize this even during their moments of ecstatic happiness. It’s also a time when political changes reach into the heart of family tradition, forever changing the roles so fervently described in the opening number. Our familiarity with the show may be honestly jumbled with our familiarity of “what comes next” historically, but that makes no real difference here – those few totally unfamiliar with the play will know from the opening number that this will not end happily for all.
I really loved the open set by designer Jacob Olson. Centered by an enormous structure resembling a tree trunk (or the classic “Wicker Man” and we all know how that story ends), it also features about a dozen miniature house frames that rise and fall to establish different scenes. Internally lit they can be a spectacular background (as during “Sabbath Prayer”), or a symbolic “canopy” for the tree trunk (distinct branches with a common root), so, of course, as the Anatevka residents disperse during the conclusion, they rise out of sight, gone, and barely remembered. It is an inspired design choice and truly enhances every scene.
There were also many moments that “felt” different than in prior productions – For example, during “To Life,” when the Russians enter the song, it isn’t the usual “we’re getting drunk together” faux brotherhood I’ve gotten used to, but an aggressive, almost threatening interruption to the festivities. Yes, there is some mingling as the number progresses, but it remains a chilling reminder of two groups (each with their distinct style of dance) that could never possibly truly interweave,
I also appreciated the staging of “Do You Love Me?” with Tevye and Golde on opposite sides of the stage, apart yet together, ending the song not with an embrace, but with them turning away from each other to continue their routine chores. It sounds cold to describe, but the effect was beautiful, a moment during a long-term partnership of a couple who can express their love, a couple who trusts that regard to be returned.
What really sells this show is its remarkable cast. Jacob Fishel is a wonderful Tevye, overwhelmed by the details of his troubles, but truly connected to his family, to his traditions, and to his God (in that order). Liza Jaine is every bit his match as Golde, running the home with an iron will and a strong hand. I also really enjoyed the work of the daughters (Carly Ann Lovell as Tzeitel, Leigh Ellen Jones as Hodel, and Aliya Kraar as Chava – the youngest daughters played by Mila Yehya and Kayla Furie have little to do, yet still make an impression) and their chosen “mates” (Brian Wittenberg as Motel, Haden Rider as Perchik, and Roberto Méndez as Fyedke) each prove themselves worthy of affection and respect. The ensemble of villagers is large and cohesive and filled with many local and (in some cases) familiar faces. They fill the stage with character and color and harmony.
Kudos also to choreographer Marla Phelan who created some spectacular moments that pay homage to Jerome Robbins’ original work without slavishly imitating it. This is a living and breathing dance design, rather than a mummified museum display.
Fiddler on the Roof is a masterpiece, has always been a masterpiece, will always be a masterpiece. This production, a masterpiece itself, does the show full justice, and more so, providing us new perspectives and creatively delightful images and moments, sending us from the theatre saddened at the fates of the characters, but relishing the exhilarating time we spent in their company.
To digress to an even more traditional note, let me remind you of how Sholem Aleichem begins his story “Modern Children” (Tzeitel’s tale):
“Modern children, did you say? Ah, you bring them into the world, sacrifice yourself for them, you slave for them day and night – and what do you get out of it? You think that one way or another it would work out according to your ideas or station. After all, I don’t expect to marry them off to millionaires, but then I don’t have to be satisfied with just anyone, either. So I figured I’d have at least a little luck with my daughters. Why not? In the first place, didn’t the Lord bless me with handsome girls; and a pretty face, as you yourself have said, is half a dowry. And besides, with God’s help, I’m not the same Tevye I used to be. Now the best match is not beyond my reach. Don’t you agree?”
Old and well-loved musicals, did you say? Ah, you go to them, and what do you get out of it? You think that one way or another it would work out according to your memories and expectations. After all, I don’t expect the production to go out on a creative limb, but I don’t have to be satisfied with a lifeless museum piece, either. In the first place, didn’t Reb Sholem Aleichem bless us with a vibrant Tevye and with emotionally complex tales? Didn’t Joseph Stein and Jerome Robbins and Bock & Harnick bring them to the stage fully-formed and beautifully sung? And a beautiful show, as you yourself have said, is half the battle. Now, a diverting and moving revival is not beyond our reach. Don’t you agree?
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #CitySpringsTheatreCo #FiddlerOnTheRoof )
BTW, I strongly recommend you track down the documentary “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” -- Information and Access to Preview and Full Video HERE