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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The 35th Anniversary Production of
Fiddler on the Roof  is Still Fresh



It is hard to believe that this old war-horse of a musical is celebrating its 35th Anniversary. This new production looks fresh and lively. It is still an emotional evening, partly due to its leading star Theodore Bikel as Tevye. Mr. Bikel was having fun on stage on opening night. Every slight mannerism, shrug of his shoulder, or look in his eye as he talks to the Almighty makes this show seem new.

I first saw this show way back in 1964 with Zero Mostel as Tevye. The cast was superb, with Beatrice Arthur playing Golde and Joanna Merlin, Julia Mignes and two young actors named Austin Pendleton and Bert Convy in the cast.

I have seen many productions of the Harnick and Bock musical including those starring Topol and Herschel Bernardi. This current production ranks with the original 1964 production.

The landmark musical tells the complex emotional tale of Tevye and his five daughters in the impoverished Russian village of Anatevka just before the 1905 revolution. The story is told with wit and humor, and it is a powerful statement about the evils of prejudice and the importance of maintaining a warm and communal family life in the midst of severe oppression.

In 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein optioned the Shalom Aleichem short stories of Tevye for a musical, Tevye’s Daughters. They had planned to used unpublished music by Jerome Kern in a show which never came to pass. In March 1961, Bock, Harnick and Joseph Stein, the writer of the book, met to discuss the possibilities of adapting the Tevye stories. Later Jerome Robbins joined the trio to create some wonderful choreography. Harold Prince became the producer and history was made.

Robbins was inspired to use the circle metaphor, a constant presence in Jewish folk dance patterns. This became the basis for the show’s design and the staging of "Tradition", "To Life", "The Wedding Celebration" and the great "Bottle Dance". The dances were unsophisticated, yet you see the universality in these dances. They have been refashioned by Sammy Dallas Bayes from the original Jerome Robbins choreography. The dancers are outstanding for this new production. The highlight of the whole production were the three amazing dancing scenes. I don’t think anyone can beat the choreography of the dream scene in the first act or the lovely Jewish Wedding ritual and the dances that follow. I cannot leave out the wonderful dance sequence of "To Life".

The original production won nine Tony Awards in 1965 and had 3,242 performances making it the longest running Broadway musical of its time. It is now the ninth longest running show in Broadway history.

As part of probably one of the best Broadway scores ever written, you'll not get melodies like "Tradition", "Sunrise, Sunset and "To Life" out of your mind. The last scene, with the chorus singing "Anatevka" is heart breaking.

The whole company looks as if they come from 1905 Anatevka. The men sport real beards and the women, dressed in heavy skirts, dance with a wild abandon. The set is excellent with tilted box houses and trees that float around the stage. Lighting is superb.

Theodore Bikel has done this role 1600 plus performances to date, yet it is as if he were doing it for the very first time on opening night. Susan Cella as Goldie makes a perfect foil. Her sharp tongue is excellent and her voice is perfect when she sings "Do You Love Me" with Mr. Bikel. It was good to see Miriam Baken as Yente. She has done outstanding work in regional productions. It was marvelous to see that she is getting recognition in a National company.

The rest of singing cast are excellent, although I did have a problem with Michael Iannucci, playing Motel, on opening night. His song "Miracle of Miracles" could barely be heard. It could have been an off night for him or the sound system was not working properly. The three main daughters also shined in "Matchmaker, Matchmaker". Played by Eileen Tepper, Dana Lynn Caruso and Tamra Hayden, they are all excellent actresses and singers.

This is probably one of the best “Fiddlers” that I have ever seen,and I highly recommend it. It is part of this season's “Best of Broadway” series and it is currently at The Golden Gate Theater. Tickets are $35 to $75. Call 415-512-7770 or visit Best of Broadway-San Francisco

Fiddler on the Roof runs through March 4.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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