There’s a reason this play won nine Tony Awards and spawned five Broadway revivals.
Welcome to Anatevka.
In this tiny town near Russia’s western border, life is hard. Tevye, an amiable milkman, struggles to provide for his wife and five daughters. Fortunately, though he doesn’t have much money, he’s got a lot of heart. And, like everyone else in town, he’s prone to random bursts of song and dance.
Set in 1905 and written in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof can sometimes seem like a quaint relic from a bygone era. Even when it opened on Broadway, many critics derided its sanitized presentation of Jewish life in pre-revolutionary Russia. Philip Roth called it “shtetl kitsch,” and Cynthia Ozick described it as an “emptied-out, prettified romantic vulgarization.”
In 2019, in a world populated by politically engaged hip-hoperas and straight plays that grapple with the most pressing issues of our day, it’s tempting to think that shows like Fiddler are at best a pleasant distraction from more serious fare and at worst completely irrelevant.
This idea is further underscored by the number of edgy reinterpretations of classic works that pop up each year: A race-reversed take on Othello with a white protagonist and mostly black supporting cast. An immersive version of MacBeth stripped of nearly all its dialogue.
The thing is, we haven’t gotten fundamentally better at writing songs or dramatic storylines since the 1960s. And even if Fiddler isn’t as topical as most modern musicals, it is stacked with an enviable number of great songs. At least half a dozen of the numbers – “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Miracle of Miracles,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Do You Love Me?” – have wormed their way into the popular consciousness. And they’re easier to sing along to than many of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s biggest hits (though that doesn’t prevent me from trying to channel Ana Nogueira every time I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack). The numbers are obviously at their toe-tapping best when delivered by talented actors. And the cast of this touring production, led by an excellent Yehezkel Lazarov as Tevye, is exactly that.
The scenic design, by Michael Yeargen, is simple but effective, as are the costumes by Catherine Zuber. The play’s director, Tony-winner Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, The King and I) seemed intent on giving his actors plenty of room to breath, and belt out hits, on stage. The end result is a straightforward but deftly executed production that puts the cast front and center. He has the actors play many of the scenes in the first act for laughs, often turning to broad physical comedy. As the play progresses, though, they’re as apt to inspire tears as laughs.
And in the final scene of the play, when (spoiler alert!) most of the characters have been exiled from their ancestral homeland, it’s clear that though Fiddler is rarely considered a particularly political or particularly serious play, it nevertheless has something to say about contemporary religious intolerance and our present-day treatment of refugees.
Yeargen drives this point home with a single, anachronistic detail: he has Tevye don a modern-day coat before joining a long line of villagers walking away from Anatevka for the last time. In that coat, he could be any one of the tens of thousands of people fleeing persecution here or abroad.
The detail serves as a reminder that shows that effectively plumb the depths of the human condition, whether they’re set in Russia in 1905 or the United States in 2019, are always going to be relevant. And in the hands of a cast and crew as talented as this one, they can be a joy to watch too.
Go See It: Fiddler on the Roof is playing at the Marcus Center through Feb. 17.