Dallas — As of 2019, it’s easy to recognize Fiddler on the Roof as an enduring monument of musical theater and American culture. And the touring version now playing at the Musical Hall at Fair Park, based on the 2015 Broadway revival, brings together outstanding choreography, a superbly designed production, and a brief but significant tweaking of the opening and final moments to prove that Fiddler is not just a period piece from Broadway’s past, but a work that continues to resonate meaningfully on several levels.
A 19th-century literary masterpiece, Ukrainian-born Sholam Aleichem’s powerful Yiddish short story cycle Tevye the Dairyman, provided the inspiration for Fiddler in 1964. Playwright Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock, and lyricist in Sheldon Harnick brought to life the successive predicaments of Yiddish Everyman Tevye, decorating his adventures with an irresistibly tuneful score and lyrics way beyond clever. The result was a musical that broke records on Broadway and became part of America’s musical vernacular. (Just count the number of times you hear an audience member stifle the urge to hum or sing along on any of the songs in this score.)
The ongoing power of Fiddler — which is presented by Dallas Summer Musicals through Aug. 18 and will run for a week at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall, Aug. 20-25 — becomes obvious, in this current production, with breathtaking immediacy in the opening ensemble number. Here, the chorus roars out the proclamation of “Tradition” against a sheer, bleak backdrop, as unquestioning as the traditions that, in the course of the drama, will crumble one by one.
Choreography quickly emerges as one of the strongest assets of this production. The influence of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography for the 1964 is respectfully acknowledged, with new additions and dance arrangements by Hoffesh Schechter, all adapted for the tour by Oran Eldor. The playing out of gender roles and community expectations comes to the fore as papas, mamas, sons, and daughters all dutifully delineate and their duties and expectations.
The dance sequences continue to captivate throughout the first act, as the possibility of common ground rises in the all-male athleticism of “To Life,” with uneasy bonding and at least temporary camaraderie between Jewish and Christian villagers.
The breathtaking choreographic moments reach a high point in the wedding scene, at first in the gender-segregated folk dancing. Then, in the bottle dance, young men one by one join in dancing while balancing bottles on the tops of their heads (including one of the dancers falling and dropping his bottle—a neat Balanchine-esque touch). The virtuosity of these segments leads finally to that emotional moment in which a man and woman dare to dance together.
Yehezkel Lazarov winningly takes on the central role of Tevye; he’s comfortable as the poor but ever-enduring peasant who argues with God, meekly puts up with his perennially grouchy wife Golde (Maite Uzal), desperately loves his daughters, and grudgingly accepts the decline of dearly-held traditions. Lazarov is considerably less comfortable and convincing, however, when he slips into occasional mean mockery. Uzal likewise owns the character of the peasant wife, complaining, bossy, and ultimately loving, but with a voice not quite projecting in the caverns of the Music Hall. The best individual vocal performances come from Tevye and Golde’s daughters, performed with lively presence and impressive vocal beauty by Mel Wein, Ruthy Froch, and Natalie Powers as Tzotel, Hodel, and Chava, respectively. (It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on whoever plays Tzeitel, since it’s the role that provided Bette Midler’s breakthrough moment in the original Broadway production in the late 1960s; she was a replacement.) Jesse Weil as Motel the tailor is lean and appropriately nervous, while Ryne Nordecchia epitomizes the rebellious, politically motivated student. Paul Morland provides the silent, ever-present Fiddler. In other secondary roles, Carol Beaugard noisily and comically hounds as Yente, the Matchmaker, while Jonathan von Mering is, as he should be, clumsy and boorish as Lazar Wolf, the butcher.
All of this plays out beautifully against the sometimes chillingly abstract, sometimes warmly realistic sets by Dallas native Michael Yeargan, with traditional eastern European Jewish peasant costumes by Catherine Zuber. The staging of the dream sequence provides an effectively extravagant moment in the otherwise almost somber, somewhat minimalist settings. Michael Uselmann conducted the orchestra with fine momentum for this unfailingly lively score.
The previously noted tweak to the structure of the play, the brainchild of director Bartlett Sher, involves, at the opening, Lazarov in a modern jacket (such as might be worn by a refugee or transnational immigrant) delivering the opening lines as if from a book—a reminder of the literary origins of the play in Aleichem’s short story cycle. The staging of the final moments, as the characters disappear into silhouettes, urges the viewer to connect the persecution of Jews in imperial Russia to the plight of refugees and immigrants in our time.
At the time of its debut in 1964, Fiddler served as a unifying symbol and reminder of heritage for the American Jewish community at a moment when assimilation and cultural diversification had reached a tipping point. Fiddler continues to function at that level for an even more assimilated and diverse Jewish community today.
But Fiddler is much more than a celebration of specifically Jewish history and culture, and the eastern European Jewry that transported itself to America in face of oppression. Like tacos, spring rolls, St. Patrick’s Day, Motown, and a Declaration of Independence written by white guys, Fiddler belongs to all of us.