Regional Reviews: Boston
Fiddler on the Roof
Shedding his modern outerwear, the man steps into the shoes of Tevye, the village milkman, husband to Golde, father to five daughters, and our audience surrogate who guides us through the vignettes of Anatevka life that compose Fiddler on the Roof, the well-loved musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Joseph Stein (book). Played here with understated wit and charm by Yehezkel Lazarov, Tevye is a poor man rich in spirit, whose devotion to his family and faith is tested as forces from the outside world begin to overtake his community. The simple power of this Fiddler, on tour (now non-Equity) following a 2015 Broadway revival, is its respect for Bock, Harnick and Stein's timeless work: a delicate balance of comedy and drama that reflects the endurance of a people faced with cultural upheaval and religious intolerance.
More than fifty-five years after its Broadway debut, originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, Fiddler on the Roof endures. It may be one of the few perfect musicals, with a rich, playful score giving life to characters who feel authentic and lived-in. (Or it's a nearly perfect musical. "The Rumor," Yente's comic gossip song, falls flat. And Perchik's "Now I Have Everything" underwhelms next to lovelier ballads like "Far from the Home I Love.")
Now at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, this production is beautifully affecting without sacrificing any of its intimacy or humor. Credit goes to director Bartlett Sher, who allows us to enjoy the familiar feeling of returning to a classic. Sher is known for restaging classic musicals, from South Pacific to My Fair Lady, by honoring what works in the text, without much radical reinterpretation. Beyond the contemporary framing devicethe one new element that Sher imposesthis revival doesn't try to revolutionize.
Instead, Sher aims to re-investigate what we remember well. First to my mind is a rendition of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" that's more muted and tremulous than I've heard before. Tevye's three eldest daughtersTzeitel, Hodel, and Chavaare singing out of trepidation; even a marriage that's not arranged seems inherently terrifying.
It's a crucial scene that sets the story in motion, as Tevye must reckon with each daughter's choice to forego tradition and marry a man of her choosing. When Tzeitel is faced with an unsuitable match (Lazar Wolf, the wealthy town butcher), she pleads with her father to marry her true love: Motel, a poor tailor. Little does Tevye realize the far-reaching effects of granting her his blessingboth under his roof, as Hodel and Chava push the boundaries even further, and in the threat of violence that may soon visit their village, one of many pogroms commanded by Tsarist Russia to sow chaos in Jewish communities like Anatevka.
There are many pleasures to be had in this revival, chief among them Lazarov's Tevye. His wry asides to the audienceand his prayers to God himselfare more underhanded, almost tossed off, and his take on "If I Were a Rich Man" is mostly contained and introspective, suiting the overall tenor of this production. But when called upon, in select moments, he musters up a declamatory bellow and a bit of broad Borscht Belt comedy, as if his beleaguered Tevye needs to work himself up to asserting his patriarchal authority. In his "Do You Love Me?" duet with Maite Uzal's Golde (similarly understated), their barbs to each other are sweet but sharp.
Wisely, the new choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, retains the feel for Robbins' original work. The wedding bottle dance still impresses. Through Shechter's dance steps, these villagers have a vibrant outlet to express themselves in ways that honor their daily customs (like in the opening "Tradition") and in ways that depart, like the raucous celebrations for engagements and weddings. The sets (Michael Yeargan) and costumes (Catherine Zuber) are kept deliberately simple, though Zuber does have fun with Tevye's dream sequence, with an ensemble clad in ghoulish masks and a towering Fruma Sarah conjured from the grave.
"It's a new world," Tevye tells his wife. It's a world where radical ideas of love and marriage are first disavowed then, with time, accepted and even embraced. But also, as Sher reminds us in the final moments, Fiddler on the Roof's classic stories are not distant from the world today, where refugees are forced from their homes, vilified and dehumanized as they search for somewhere, anywhere, to welcome them. "Personally, I don't know why there has to be this trouble between people," the village constable says; he's just part of an administration, one of the many who take no direct responsibility for the injustice they contribute to.
Meanwhile, these refugees move forward, their fates unresolveda moving reminder of the power of carrying on our traditions and continuing to share these beloved stories.
Fiddler on the Roof, presented by Broadway in Boston, runs through March 8, 2020, at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 539 Washington Street, Boston MA. Tickets are sold at BroadwayInBoston.com, by phone at 888-616-0272 , and at the Emerson Colonial Theatre Box Office. For more information on the tour, visit fiddlermusical.com.