Fiddler on the Roof
At the Cadillac Palace Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“Fiddler on the Roof” still maintains its power to entertain and move an audience, even after countless revivals more than 50 years after its Broadway premiere. At least that’s the happy verdict of the touring production now at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
The current show is a staging of the 2015 revival directed by Bartlett Sher. The director didn’t make radical changes in the musical. “Fiddler” is too locked into the story’s time and place and sensibility for any radical amendments. The audience still gets the tale of the poor residents of the village of Anatevka somewhere in the Russian boondocks in the early 1900’s. The residents live by Tradition, that all-purpose word that identifies the bonding of the Jewish men, women, and children who face daily threats from an anti-Semitic gentile society.
The heart of the show, of course, is Tevye, the impoverished dairyman struggling to feed a family of one wife and five marriageable daughters. As created by the Russian-born Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem, Tevye ranks among the greatest comic/dramatic figures in modern Western literature. Tevye endures, sustained by his love of his family and religion and his one-way conversions with God that sooner or later come down to the dairyman’s complaint that he deserves better treatment from the deity.
Through the microcosm of Anatevka in general and Tevye and his family in particular, “Fiddler” captures the society of the time in the turbulent grip of political change and domestic change. The existing order is cracking under the strain of new ideas that challenge the establish beliefs of the day, beliefs grouped under the name of the opening song of the show, “Tradition.” One by one Tevye loses his three eldest daughters and ultimately is driven out of his village, forced to make a new life in America or elsewhere. Doubtless there were some members of the opening night audience who could count these persecuted but stalwart people as their great grand parents.
“Fiddler” starts slowly, introducing the characters of Anatevka with an ethnic Jewish humor that has become an almost burlesque stereotype. The laughs come often and a little too easy. But as the story advances, the atmosphere gains in dramatic heft. “Sunrise, Sunset” sung at the marriage of Tevya’s daughter Hodel has brought a lump in the throats of countless parents as their suddenly grown up children leave the nest to start families of their own, often far away. Hodel’s passionate “Far From the Home I Love” would bring tears to the eyes of a head on Mount Rushmore.
“Fiddler” still has its social and historical relevance, but it couldn’t thrive for more than half a century without being great theater. Jerome Robbins created innovative choreography that has been largely preserved in the Sher revival. Notable is the dance at Hodel’s wedding that features a line of young men performing with wine bottles balanced on their heads. A dream sequence that doesn’t have much to do with the plot is still a wonder of fantasy and spectacle.
Any revival of “Fiddler” requires a dominating Tevye to succeed. In this production the Israeli actor Yehezkel Larazov takes on the classic role, and with a difference. The dairyman who kibitzes with God is conventionally a comic Falstaffian figure in the image of Zero Mostel, the original Tevye—wry, funny, and a little overbearing. Lazarov is a comparatively young Tevye, a realistic figure who doesn’t jolly his willing audience with nudge-nudge-wind-wink asides and broad comic gestures.
Lazarov may not be as lovable as the typical stage Tevye but his down to earth interpretation grounds the show in a reality that pays off in a last half of the evening that holds the viewers with its emotional intensity. Lazarov’s Tevye isn’t so much a stage figure as a real person brought to life on the stage.
The supporting cast is generally well up to the mark, though the actress playing the comic matchmaker Yente is severely under cast. As Golde, Maite Uzal needs to dial down the shrew quotient early in the play. But her explosion of grief at the departure of one of her daughters is stunning in its intensity. Jesse Weil makes a real person out of the nebbish young tailor who finally finds happiness with his new sewing machine and one of Tevye’s daughters as his wife. And Jonathan von Mering adds unexpected depth to the minor character of Lazar Wolf, the prosperous village butcher who unsuccessfully woos one of Tevye’s girls.
Michael Yeargan’s marvelous sets make a virtue out of the logistical limitations inherent in a touring production. The set design consists of evocative pieces descending from the rafters or pushed onstage from the wings to take the story out of doors or into a house. The design adds is one of the most atmospheric and creative I can recall from a road company production. Donald Holder’s lighting and Catherine Zuber’s atmospheric historically credible costumes are major visual embellishments.
“Fiddler on the Roof” probably deserves credit for the romanticizing of the shetl (an eastern European village) more than 100 years ago. By all accounts life in the shetl was hard but Shalom Aleichem elevated it to a folklore dimension that “Fiddler on the Roof” recreated with much emotion and local color. The musical has captured the imagination of playgoers for half a century and its vitality and relevance remain undiminished, at least in the hands of a skilled director like Bartlett Sher.
The show gets a rating of.
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs through January 6 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and information call 800 775 2000.