FIRST NIGHT REVIEW
Sects and Violins
Fiddler on the Roof @ The Saenger Theater
The themes of tradition being challenged by new ideas is one that looms large in many ways over this beloved 60-year old musical. The staging itself creates these very tensions, and in this touring ‘Broadway in New Orleans’ production, a couple of small modern touches are introduced to emphasize the ongoing relevance of the story. The story is book-ended by the lead in a modern, bright orange parka, driving home that the themes ring true for the people of Syria, or even more topically, Ukranians (to whom the show is dedicated).
Tevye (Jonathan Hashmoney) is an impoverished milkman in a Jewish village in Tsarist Russia in 1905, who nevertheless delights in the rules that bind society and will help him marry off his five daughters. If there’s a stronger, more emphatic opening number than ‘Tradition’ then I’ve yet to see it, the central tensions of the show set up with incredible gusto from the off. “People ask me where these traditions come from,” Tevye confides to the audience, “And I’ll tell you…I don’t know.”
Tevye lives happily with his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal), a hard-working pragmatist with a no-nonsense outlook. His three eldest daughters are approaching marrying age, and although the meddling matchmaker Yente (Gabriella Green) fusses around them, they each have their own ideas, which slowly but surely come to the fore.
Tevye speculates on how life could be, and while being grateful for his faith and culture, wishes for just a little more in life. Hashmoney brings a fresh charisma to the number ‘If I Were a Rich Man’, ramping up the laughs as his imagined life of wealth gets ever more decadent.
At first, life is comically exasperating for Tevye, as his eldest Tzeitel (Randa Meierhenry) ducks away from an arranged marriage to bluff elder butcher Lazar Wolf (Andrew Hendrick). She has eyes for the local tailor Motel (Daniel Kushner) and Tevye goes against his better judgment and relents.
In these early scenes, fast-paced humor dominates, and the lines come thick and fast. Lazar Wolf offers Tevye a drink - “I won’t insult you by saying no!” comes the reply. Perchik (Austin J Gresham), a young student, tells Tevye that money is the world’s curse - “Then let God smite me with it!” yells the dairyman. There’s also a telling part where Perchik interprets a bible story as saying that “all employers are evil” and let me tell you, only the back half of the theater laughed.
Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding comes as a first act climax, with joyous scenes of incredibly gymnastic and inspirationally-arranged dance numbers. People usually think of West Side Story, but Fiddler on the Roof is low-key one of the greatest musicals for dance numbers. Back flips, feats of agility, and of course the famous bottle dance, explode on the crowded stage. All credit to the truly outstanding work by choreographer Hofesh Shechter.
Already, though, the cracks in age-old practices are starting to appear. Perchik dances with unmarried Hodel (Graceann Kontak) to initial outrage, and the wedding is broken up by Tsarist militia men, in a stark warning of the violence to come.
Tevye’s world begins to crumble as we start the second act. Hodel and Perchik declare their love, Tevye’s permission overstepped. He very sheepishly gives his blessing, with a lament: “Love! It’s the new way!” His limits are severely tested, though, as Chava (Yarden Barr), falls for a visitor, Fyedka (Carson Robinette), who isn’t Jewish. He questions his own relationship with Golde, as they duet on the gorgeous second half highlight, ‘Do You Love Me?’.
The family unit is strained, as is the community as they are violently evicted from their village by the Tsarist forces. New ways and ideas come in many guises, from cheeky loopholes that allow teenagers to dance together to the extermination of a people and their culture. It’s a pretty bleak ending but the power of hope is never extinguished.
Breathing new life into a 60-year old musical can’t be easy, but Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes do fabulous work in updating the aesthetics without losing the ambience of an early 20th-century East European village. Tevye’s incredible dream sequence wouldn’t look out of place in a Tim Burton movie, and classic set pieces such as the expertly-rendered bottle dance are utterly compelling, visually reinforcing the subtle, growing tensions.
I’d only ever seen half of the epic film, and so to experience the full range of emotion, from belly laughs to near-unbearable poignancy, was unexpected but very welcome. This production of Fiddler is as fresh, challenging and relevant as it must have been in the 1960s. We can pay respect to theatrical traditions while accepting new ideas, and when a huge ensemble uses both to create something this powerful and entertaining, that’s surely the real sweet spot. (PO)
Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Saenger Theater through Sunday March 5th. Click here for more information and tickets.
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