I was about 5 the first time I saw Fiddler on the Roof. When I heard Tevye ask his wife (of 25 years) this question I didn’t understand it. How could her answer finally be, “I suppose I do?” How could the answer be anything but a resounding, “yes?” Now, 25 years into my own relationship with Fiddler on the Roof, I feel like this cast poses the question: “Do you love me?”
In this well-loved story, milkman and caring father Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov) navigates the complexities of familial, religious, and social expectations surrounding the marriages of his three eldest daughters. Motivated by his Jewish faith and his strong love for his daughters, Tevye tries to balance their happiness while maintaining his community’s traditions. All this happens against the backdrop of 1904 Russia. While his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal) and matchmaker Yente (Carol Beaugard) urge Tevye to make prudent matches for the girls, he often lets them follow their hearts, even to his own hurt. Filled with songs we all know and love, this production of Fiddler on the Roof will keep your toes tapping.
While Fiddler on the Roof revolves around the love lives of Tevye’s daughters, they have very few songs. As an ensemble, the three eldest Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Chava (Natalie Powers) get the crowd-favorite “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” This song sets the tone for the rest of the play. If the matchmaker doesn’t find someone good for them, they realize that their lives will be horrible -- hence, “It’s not that I’m sentimental, it’s just that I’m terrified!” The arc of this song incites the girls to take matters into their own hands. Weyn, Froch, and Powers are great together and their tambers mix beautifully. There is a genuine warmth in their movements and horsing around that feels natural and deeply familial. This chemistry crosses over to their love interests as well. Motel’s (Jesse Weil) affected sheepishness turns to confidence and Perchik’s (Ryne Nardecchia) hard-line political beliefs are tempered (ever so slightly) by his love for Hodel. Both Chava and Fyedka (Joshua Logan Alexander) get the short end of the script and so get very little time on stage to develop.
Given that the town of Anatevka is so unimposing, grappling with its set design is always challenging -- a bit like trying to make meat, potatoes, and gravy anything other than white and brown… In this case, the scenic design by Michael Yeargan sticks to classic staging. Particularly good is the tavern, with the Jewish patrons on one side and the Christan Russians on the other, divided by a pronounced but not excessive wall. When activated by the song “To Life” and its associated revelry, the tavern puts one in mind of a listing ship -- its passengers pitched back and forth, mixed up and (almost) indistinguishable. Its choreography (originally by Jerome Robbins and reimagined for production by Hofesh Shechter), alongside “Prologue: Tradition,” was some of the best of the evening. Small bits of choreography get passed back and forth between the groups, making them feel more chummy and mixed than they actually are.
Chaim Topol’s Tevye looms over any production of this iconic musical, and you can feel Lazarov pushing against some of Topol’s choices. Lazarov brings a snarky, almost millennial edge to the character. He is a bit less reverent and a considerably more mischievous. He is tired, and while he wants to do the best things for his daughters, something in Lazarov’s characterization makes you realize how precious Tevye’s life is-- Lazarov’s Tevye realizes there is so little he can do to protect his daughters from the (so often hostile) world. When Hodel leaves for Siberia and sings the classic, “Far From the Home I Love,” you can almost feel Tevye’s inability to give her something to stay for as well as his fear for her to leave. In this production, Tevye starts and ends the play wearing a red hoodie. When the authorities come to force the Jewish population out of Anatevka, it is set against the strong vertical boards of a “barn” that looks just like pieces of the border wall between America and Mexico. These visual cues remind the audience that migration so often forced--governments change and asylum seekers are real. It’s an (admittedly) small reminder that the themes of this show continue to resonate for us; the mistakes of the past can always happen again if we do not vigilantly guard against them.
After 25 years, the plot and songs of this show are near and dear to me. I can see its holes, recite the punchlines to Tevye’s numerous dad jokes, and yet “Sunrise, Sunset” still makes me tear up, and “Sabbath Prayer” makes me yearn for Sunday dinners with my mother and grandmother. After 25 years, I suppose I love it, too. It doesn’t change a thing, but it is nice to know.
Fiddler on the Roof runs at the Orpheum Theater until August 4.