New Rep's "Fiddler": Another One in a Minyan

The Cast of New Rep's "Fiddler on the Roof"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

To choose to present Fiddler on the Roof , arguably the most universally beloved piece of musical theater, is certainly resonant in our current political and cultural revolutionary time. But there are mighty intellects afoot in this New Rep production nonetheless, beginning with the theatrical magician known as Director Austin Pendleton. Renowned for his enormous body of work, from Off-Broadway's The Last Sweet Days of Isaac in 1970, to originating the role of Motel in Broadway's Fiddler in 1964, to his voice-over role as Gurgle in 2003's animated film, Finding Nemo and in 2016's Finding Dory, his touch is everywhere in this production, most of the time successfully. Fifty years after its Broadway debut, this company is presenting a moving revival of this work based on “Tevye and His Daughters” by Ukranian Sholem Aleichem. A musical set in a Jewish shtetl, about a poor milkman with five dowerless daughters amidst pogroms in czarist Russia? Crazy, no? Yet it ran almost eight years on Broadway, having received ten Tony nominations, winning nine (including Best Musical). The 1971 film version earned eight Oscar nominations and won three of them. It has been revived on Broadway several times since, including one version this season. Clearly this work is, as Tevye himself might say, one in a minyan, in its tenacity about the traditions that keep their community alive and together.

A large part of its popularity is the depth of the book by Joseph Stein, a well-constructed, age-old tale about love, of a father for his children (and their love for him in return) and his love for his religious faith, and what happens when these come into conflict with one another. The scene is set by arguably the most brilliant opening number ever conceived for any musical, “Tradition”. The show barely begins before the audience knows how essential traditions (especially religious tenets, including taboos) were to Tevye the Milkman (here memorably played by Jeremiah Kissel). Yet he is surrounded in his own home by creeping modernism. While his wife of twenty-five years, Golde (the amazing Amelia Broome) is old-fashioned and superstitious, this is not true of his daughters. The eldest Tzeitel (an expressive Abby Goldfarb) seeks to marry Motel (the wonderful Patrick Varner), not the intended Butcher Lazar Wolf (David Wohl), without the services of the local matchmaker Yente (a hilarious Bobbie Steinbach). The next in line, Hodel (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) plans to marry the revolutionary Perchik (Ryan Mardesich) without her father’s permission, only his blessing. Then, the ultimate crisis, the next daughter Chava (Victoria Britt) wants to marry outside the faith, and to one of their oppressors at that, the Russian Gentile, Fyedka (Dan Prior). Tevye struggles to hold onto his culture and beliefs, as his small world changes around him at a rapid pace with conflicting crises around love and family, as well as pride and, yes, tradition. How much can Tevye bend until he finally breaks? Teyve proclaims, at the close of that opening number, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as-- as a fiddler on the roof!”

One might criticize such devotion to traditions (especially those that morph all too frequently into laws), as expressed in the song “Sabbath Prayer” (“strengthen them, O Lord, and keep them from the stranger’s ways”), but it’s still a significant story, with a phenomenally multi-leveled score. Jerry Bock (Music) and Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics) were never better. Who can ever forget “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Miracle of Miracles” (never performed with such chemistry as by Varner and Goldfarb), and to “To Life”, or the poignant “Do You Love Me?”, “Far From the Home I Love”, and the finale, “Anatevka”? And then there’s “Sunrise, Sunset”, in a class by itself, with its exquisitely moving wedding scene. It was an evening of great moments, from the trio of “Matchmaker” (never as enjoyably staged as here), with Choreography by Kelli Edwards, who provides a marvelous bottle dance that has never been done better, and is even more difficult to stage than it might seem.

The score is given full force by the performances of the entire cast. Under the sensitive and detailed direction of Pendleton (who shows his intimate appreciation of the show at every turn), the huge cast of over two dozen is fabulous both individually and as a unit. There is also the on-stage presence of a miming fiddler (Dashiell Evett, fondly remembered from the company's recent Camelot), invoking the 1908 Chagall painting of “The Dead Man”, a fiddler on a rooftop, which initially inspired Stein’s book. In one directorial misstep, however, the director has him remain on stage for most of the show, thus often interacting with a metaphor instead of God or the audience; he makes the same questionable choice in several scenes where characters (Tzeitel, Chava, Fyedka) are part of scenes they weren't written to be present in, in a heavy dose of magic realism that works against the story. The technical credits are by and large extraordinary, from the perfect Costume Design from Kathleen Doyle to the complex Lighting Design by Keith Parham and the meticulous Music Direction by F. Wade Russo (who has done this for Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals for a quarter century, including “Fiddler” two seasons ago). The only mistep is the lovely Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, which would be more appropriate for a Disney-staged version of “Frozen”; a shtetl like Anatevka needn't be ugly but it should at least appear authentically rustic.

Overall, one might well sing “wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles” indeed. This production provides a “Fiddler” of basic simplicity and great heart, one for all ages. As Tevye himself might put it, it’s a blessing. And as Alisa Solomon puts it in her published history of the show, “(Tevye) wonders if (the townsfolk) might some day meet on a train, or in Odessa, or in Warsaw, or maybe even in America. In all those places, and far beyond, the world has met-and embraced-him. He belongs nowhere. Which is to say, everywhere."

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