Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
I didn't come to Fiddler on the Roof in the traditional way: watching the movie or seeing a production in my native language. I first saw it performed in Hebrew in 1998 when I lived in Israel, then I saw the movie and now, 11 years later, I've finally seen the musical on stage in English.
What did I miss the first time around? The humor, mainly. Fiddler on the Roof is a lot funnier than I realized. Even with my limited Hebrew, the poignancy came through and I recognized the songs and the dances didn't need a translation. But if you're seeing a show for the first time in a foreign language, it's hard to get the jokes.
All three of my experiences have one thing in common: Chaim Topol as Tevye, the pious Jewish milkman eking out a living with his wife and five daughters in the village of Anatevka in czarist Russia in 1905. The current tour is billed as the Israeli actor's farewell after 40 years of playing this iconic role.
Topol, at age 73, is terrific and wonderfully expressive: singing, dancing, joking, conniving, arguing, beseeching the almighty. He embodies Tevye so completely - his faith, his love for his family, his wry sense of humor, his bewilderment at a changing world. Really, I can't imagine anyone doing it better.
While Topol is clearly the performer the audience has come to see, Tevye never overwhelms the musical. I think part of the strength of Fiddler on the Roof is that it's much more than a one-man band. It's truly an ensemble.
Joseph Stein's book, based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, is rich in memorable characters. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick spread around their songs with lyrics and melodies so beautiful they bring tears to your eyes. (Just think about the first few lines of "Sunrise, Sunset.") Jerome Robbins' choreography, reproduced by Sammy Dallas Bayes, is thrilling and it's so well-integrated into the story and music. Together, they evoke the vanished world of Eastern European Jews.
One of the things I love about Fiddler on the Roof is the way we're given the time to get to know these characters as Tevye tries to find husbands for his three oldest daughters. My only quibble is that we get a little more time to watch the first two relationships unfold. By the time we get to the third, and most monumental, it seems to happen rather quickly.
Rena Strober, Jamie Davis and Alison Walla are wonderful as daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava. They're so spirited, so determined to marry for love. I really enjoyed watching the three of them in "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" as they dream of getting married while preparing for the Sabbath. And Davis has a voice that soars in "Far From the Home I Love."
Erik Liberman made a very sweet and timid Motel the tailor and Colby Foytik was great as Perchik, the idealistic student and would-be revolutionary who challenges the Jews of Anatevka to rethink their traditions. Susan Cella was a nice counterpoint to Tevye as his exasperated and long-suffering wife, Golde. Mary Stout as Yente the matchmaker and Bill Nolte as Lazar Wolf the butcher both had nice comic turns.
For years I was reluctant to see Fiddler on the Roof because I was afraid that it would romanticize the poverty-stricken and precarious lives of Russian Jews. But even the sentimental parts - like the lighting of Sabbath candles - were staged in a way that I found incredibly moving.
And the musical doesn't present an all-rosy picture. We get the moments of heartbreak as well as joy. There's no glossing over anti-Semitism. There's also no glossing over the rigid piety and resistance to change among some of the Jews of Anatevka.
Tevye is trying to hold onto the traditions that have sustained the Jewish people for centuries in the face of exile and persecution. He says, "because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do."
Now, those traditions are being questioned and his daughters are pulling away from him in ways that are unfamiliar, heartbreaking even. His response doesn't always make him a very sympathetic character but in the inspired performance of Chaim Topol, it does make him very human.