Thursday, December 20, 2018

To Life, To Life, L'Chaim: Remarkably Tuneful Fiddler on the Roof Remains Richly, If Grimly, Resonant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Fiddler on the Roof
National Tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru January 6

For my money, or at least freely offered opinions, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the 10 greatest musicals ever created.

With a wondrous set of songs by the composer/lyricist team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick--the show's book is by Joseph Stein based on Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem, while the original Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins--Fiddler feels specifically Jewish and widely universal, comfortably classic and eternally relevant.

Like some other of the very best musicals--e.g. West Side StoryCabaret, The Sound of MusicLes Miserables, Evita, Hamilton--the score and tonality are often buoyant while foreboding undercurrents are rather brilliantly woven in.

It's an eminently hummable, quintessential Broadway musical, but its narrative is rather substantive (and eventually even grim).

So it's likely that any strong professional production will enchant me (or even first-rate community, college and high school stagings).

And on what I believe to be a non-Equity (actors' union) tour derived from a 2015-16 Broadway production--the original one debuted in 1964--I found Fiddler on the Roof again to be sublime, largely but not only due to its inherent "wonder of wonders."

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
From what I had read, it seems that I am supposed to report that this rendition--directed by Bartlett Sher, who has garnered renown for acclaimed Broadway revivals of classics like South Pacific, The King and I and My Fair Lady--is considerably different and darker than past takes.

I'm not saying it isn't, but having last seen Fiddler live in 2009, I can't authoritatively say I noticed this.

Though certainly, it was a bit unique to see Tevye played by/as a relatively young man.

In 2000, I had seen one of the most legendary and frequent Tevye portrayers--Theodore Bikel--when he was well into his 70s, and likewise Topol in 2009 (though the latter did play the role, at 36, in the 1971 film version).

After the recent Broadway revival featured Danny Burstein in his early 50s, the tour stars Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov, whom Wikipedia says is 44.

The actress playing Tevye's wife Golde, Maite Uzal, is also younger than in other iterations, and given the ages of the couple's five daughters--perhaps 12-22 and largely congruent across all productions--the casting makes more biological mathematical sense, despite how great Topol and Bikel were.

In his singing, acting and rendering of Tevye's oft-bemused disposition, Lazarov is terrific, and more time in the role should make him even more so.

His delivery of "If I Were a Rich Man" is delicious, and while communal choral tunes and group dances--"Tradition," "To Life," "Tevye's Dream," "Sunrise, Sunset," "The Wedding"--are the most overtly thrilling numbers, everyone who was individually heard on the show's myriad great songs sounded swell.

This includes Mel Weyn, Ruthy Froch and Natalie Powers as Tevye & Golde's three oldest daughters--Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, respectively--on "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," Jesse Weil (as Motel the tailor) on "Miracle of Miracles" Froch and Ryne Nardecchia (Perchik) on "Now I Have Everything" and Froch solo on "Far From the Home I Love."

Director Sher and costume designer Catherine Zuber made an interesting decision to have Lazarov begin and end the show adorned in modern outerwear, ostensibly to more overtly tie the forced dissolution of a Jewish village in Russia, circa 1905, to today's times.

While a notable ploy, I didn't find it necessary, as deportation of individuals from longstanding U.S. homes, the harrowing journeys of migrants seeking a better life and the ugly brutality of bigotry make Fiddler on the Roof all too resonant without any extra gimmicks.

Other elements, old and perhaps new, will also make the tale of close-knit Anatevka, the tyranny of the Russian tsar and his xenophobic pogroms and the historical diaspora--and far worse--faced by Jews and many other peoples feel rather contemporary.

And the familial dichotomy repeatedly at the heart of Fiddler on the Roof--the battle between cultural & religious traditions and personal freedoms, particularly regarding love & marriage--should feel familiar to those of any faith, race, background or age.

It is with no disrespect to--and considerable admiration for--this production, cast and crew that it's not impossible for me to perceive Fiddler on the Roof being done ever better. If my @@@@@ rating scale was instead based on 1-to-100, I might award a 95.

But this is a brilliant musical being done tremendously well, and I believe my highest rating to be apt.

And even though there really is no roof for the fiddler to play upon in this production, appreciating all of its wonders--and even some creative miracles--should make you a rich man, or woman, indeed.


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