Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, and it was a smash hit. It ran for more than 3,000 performances (a record at the time) and won nine Tony Awards. Originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins (Funny Girl, A Funny Thing Happened…) with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, the musical follows Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman in a Russian shtetl in the early 20th century as he, his wife and five daughters navigate the changing tides of religion, politics and love. With memorable numbers like “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” the production has endured across decades and interpretations, and was even adapted into an epic, Oscar-winning three-hour film version in 1971.
Now a classic entry in the American Musical Theater canon, the show has been revived numerous times both on Broadway and by touring companies in its 50-odd years; most recently, Bartlett Sher directed an interpretation with choreography by Hofesh Shechter that premiered in New York in December 2015. It’s that version that now finds its way to the Cadillac Palace Theatre courtesy of Broadway in Chicago, where it runs through January 6.
A New York Times Critics’ Pick when it premiered three years ago, this latest iteration unmistakably modernizes a classic; though much of what we love about Anatevka and its pious residents is just as we left it—the men in their prayer shawls, Yente and her matchmaking—enough about the show is reimagined with a contemporary eye that it keeps this mainstay fresh and relevant as we find ourselves navigating our own turbulent times. Tevye, played on this tour by Israeli actor and singer Yehezkel Lazarov, first appears wearing a decidedly modern parka and glasses, reading his first few lines from a book, as if recounting the lessons of generations past. As the opening bars of “Tradition” kick in, he quickly transforms into the charming everyman and folksy philosopher who’ll carry us through the show’s two acts.
And Lazarov does carry the show, with his witty comedic timing and powerful stage presence, even in the show’s quiet moments. He deftly passes the true test of any Tevye, delivering “If I Were a Rich Man” with such fun and feeling that any reservations about his chops are quickly assuaged. One wishes the same could be said for other members of the cast. Wife Golde (Maite Uzal) more than holds her own alongside the man of the house, and daughters Tzietel (Mel Weyn), Chava (Natalie Powers) and Hodel (Ruthy Froch) are lovely; but any scene that features Yente (Carol Beaugard) is a sinking ship, so flat and poorly timed is her delivery. She’s so far from the endearingly annoying “meddling Jewish granny” that is typically such a source of joy in the show that one hopes audiences catching this tour will see the film or their community theater version in order to get a different Yente all together.
The stage design by Michael Yeargan utilizes innovative minimalism to create Tevye’s home and Motel’s tailor shop and even the local watering hole where Tzietel is matched off to the butcher Lazar Wolf. The subsequent dream sequence as Tevye comes up with a reason why his eldest daughter should actually marry Motel instead is appropriately ominous with just enough goofy in the ghoulish costumes and choreography. Though perhaps by design to emphasize the stark reality of Anatevka’s fate, the stage is far too dark for much of the proceedings, with a few lighting cues off by just long enough to be noticed and spotlights lazy as they follow their subjects. Even if it was just an off night for the technicians at the controls, it’s still a shame; these are the details that separate world class theater from the minor leagues.
These casting and technical glitches aside, Fiddler on the Roof remains a production worth experiencing as it passed through Chicago. The show has endured through decades of changing social and political climates, from the post-Camelot years of the mid-1960s to the materialism and excess of the ’80s and ’90 and into today’s questionable global leadership among a growing fear of the “other.” And through it all, and in all its iterations, Fiddler remains as poignant as ever, its themes timeless and universal. Time passes and our children grow older, building lives of their own; home is not the walls we live in but the ones we love; and most strikingly, persecution of the powerless by the powerful is all too real, then and now.
Fiddler on the Roof continues at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., through January 6. Buy tickets for $25-98.
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