It felt so good to return to the tiny village of Anatevka – to be uplifted by the heart-warming, brave inhabitants of this Russian, turn-of-the century shtetl, the hometown of Fiddler on the Roof. We get to spend a few hours listening to their songs and stories, and when they are exiled, we once again weep. We miss them and their way of life even before the curtain comes down.
Thanks to the Barrington Stage of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and its wonderful, if not quite perfect, revival of Fiddler, we can revel in the glorious Bock and Harnick score, see Jerome Robbins’ imaginative staging and dances and share the lives of Tevye, the dairyman; Golde, his wife; and their five daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age. Living with the imminent threat of Russian pogroms and the coming revolution, they hang tight to their Jewish traditions.
Fiddler on the Roof is about tradition – observing the Sabbath, a matchmaker finding a daughter’s husband, daughters marrying the man whom their fathers select and rabbis saying a blessing over even the smallest town events. “Is there a blessing for the Czar?” asks one Anatevka resident. “Of course,” says the rabbi. “May God bless and keep the Czar. Far away from us.”
Fiddler on the Roof has no overture. Rather it begins with – what else? – a fiddler on the roof of a small house. He plays his solo violin until, hands held high with bent palms forward, the entire casts dances in line onto the stage singing a song called “Tradition.” Sporadically throughout the show, the fiddler, clad in a magenta outfit and played by the graceful, accomplished, actor-musician Andrew Mayer, follows the characters fiddling his tune to remind them, and us, that their lives and this show are all about tradition. There is a question about whether the fiddler was on stage so frequently in the original Broadway production. Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist who was present at the Barrington Stage opening, said the fiddler did not appear with the characters in the original production. This reviewer saw the original on Broadway and does not recall this action. If this is a first by Barrington Stage, bravo to them. (Note to Barrington Stage: Mayer deserves his own curtain call.)
Based on the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem and the histories and research contained in the book “Life Is with People,” the plot of Fiddler on the Roof is centered on Tevye and his three oldest daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava (played by the pitch-perfect Rebecca Kuznick, Stephanie Lynne Mason, and Dawn Rother.) A husband has been chosen by Yenta, the matchmaker (the talented Rachel Coloff) for Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel. This match is the much-older butcher, Lazar Wolf (an excellent Jason Simon.) But Tzeitel begs her father to let her marry the poor tailor Motel (the thin and strong-voiced Colin Israel).
To explain his change of heart to Golde, Tevye invents a nightmare in which the ghost of Lazar Wolf’s first wife, Fruma-Sarah, comes to him and tells him that Tzeitel must marry Motel. In this production Fruma-Sarah, sitting on the shoulders of another actor, is two stories tall with bosoms the size of medicine balls and a “pearl” necklace that reaches to the bottom of her dress. (Rebecca Stavis is hilarious as Fruma-Sarah.)
Hodel, the second oldest daughter wants to marry the family’s tutor, and Tevye again struggles to give his blessing. The next youngest daughter, Chava, falls in love with a Russian, the enemy and a gentile, and Tevye refuses to bless her marriage. She leaves home without it. At the end of the show, the Russians stage a pogrom and the inhabitants of Anatevka are forced to leave – some for Poland, one for Jerusalem and one for CHI-ca-go. Tevye and his family leave for an unnamed place in America.
As Tevye, Brad Oscar gets so many things right that it’s a shame to find fault. His voice is booming and lively. When he talks to the audience, we feel as if he’s speaking to us individually. When he talks to God (high off-stage, right) he pleads believably. He has the belly shakes of “If I Were A Rich Man” down pat. In fact, he has mastered all the shtick. What’s missing, sadly, is pathos. Tevye pulls not only a milk container on his cart, but also the weight of the town’s people and their traditions. Tevye is always one straw short of being overwhelmed. Zero Mostel, the original Tevye, was able to create this exhaustion and deep empathy for his character. We laughed at Oscar’s antics, but missed feeling the character’s built-in tragedy. Only when he speaks to his wife in the tender song “Do You Love Me?” does his depth of feeling come across.
As his wife, Golde, Joanna Glusak sings magnificently. Her acting conveys the strength and patience of this hard-working woman. With a company of twenty-seven actors, singers, very strong dancers and a ten-piece orchestra led by music director Darren Cohen, the production does justice to the glorious music. Basing his staging and dances on the originals of Jerome Robbins, Gary John La Rosa both directed and choreographed brilliantly.
The scenic design was by Jack Mehler. Rather than a full set, Mehler used suggestive pieces – a small house, a few trees against a big, blue backdrop with scattered small roofs that look as if they were flying. At times the backdrop felt bare, especially when the entire cast was on stage.
Fiddler on the Roof did not have good word-of-mouth as it headed for Broadway in September of 1964. Its Detroit performances ran three and a half hours long and were a critical disaster. But copious changes were made on the road and the show opened to raves in New York. According to Howard Taubman in the New York Times, Fiddler is an “achievement of uncommon quality.” He called Zero Mostel’s performance “one of the most glowing creations in the history of the musical theater.”
Sheldon Harnick told this reviewer that treating each other with respect is the message of the show, and the message is stronger than ever today. Did he expect the show about Jews in a small Russian town to become an international classic, still alive and well after 48 years? “No. It was very special material.” He added that all Robbins wanted to do was give the shtetl another 25 years of life. “And we’ve done it.”
Once again, the Barrington Stage has presented a revival of a golden-age Broadway musical and gotten it so very right.