Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Broadway Tour of "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Ordway Center

Broadway is back at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in beautiful downtown St. Paul! The first of their four-show season of touring productions (hopefully they'll add in their fantastic original productions next season) is Fiddler on the Roof. This revival premiered on Broadway in 2015, and has played in the Twin Cities before, but this is my first time seeing it. The last time I saw Fiddler was the 2019 Off-Broadway Yiddish production, which felt like how it was always mean to be (although the musical was originally written in English, it was based on Yiddish stories). Barring the language, this touring Fiddler is also about as authentic as it gets. Featuring fresh new choreography that still honors the iconic original, an incredibly talented cast largely composed of Israeli and Jewish performers, and a brilliant and beloved score, this story of a man and a family struggling to hold on to their traditions and identity in the midst of modern advances and persecution is more moving than ever. While not explicitly a "holiday" show, Fiddler represents all of the ideals of this season - family, tradition, community - and would be a great choice for a family, friends, or solo outing. But hurry, it's only here for two weeks before Tevye and his family pack up and head to the next town (click here for info and tickets).

The 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof is based on late 19th century stories by Russian Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem. Tevye is a poor and simple man with strong belief in his Jewish faith and traditions. He believes in doing things the way they've always been done, which means arranging marriages for his five daughters. But it's 1905, and the times, they are a-changin'. Oldest daughter Tzeitel wants to marry a man of her choice, a poor tailor. Despite the fact that Tevye has arranged for her to marry the wealthy (and much older) butcher, he gives in to Tzeitel. It's obvious that the girls have their papa wrapped around their little fingers and he would do (almost) anything to see them happy. In the struggle between tradition and his daughters' happiness, his daughters win. Second daughter Hodel moves further away from family tradition when she agrees to marry a man not from the village, a scholar and political activist who gets arrested and sent to Siberia, with Hodel to follow. Third daughter Chava goes a step too far when she wants to marry outside the faith, a Russian man named Fyedka (but he's one of the "good" Russians). It breaks Tevye's heart to do so, but he cannot accept this gross breach of tradition and the seeming rejection of the faith he holds so dear. But these are not the only problems poor Tevye is dealing with; 1905 Russia was not a welcoming place for Jews. Facing religious persecution and pogroms, Tevye and his family are forced to leave and find a new home. It's a sad ending, but there's also a feeling of hope that this family will stay together and continue their traditions, as well as begin new traditions, wherever they find themselves.*

Yehezkel Lazarov as Tevye (photo by Joan Marcus)
This huge and talented cast (oh what a thrill to see on the Ordway stage again!) is led by Yehezkel Lazarov as Tevye, a role he's played for several years. He's so warm and wonderful, with his charming asides to God and/or the audience, drawing us into the story. His experience in the role shows in his natural performance, beautifully understated at times, bigger when called for, alternately playful and heart-wrenching. He's just a gem, and Maite Uzal as his wife Golde is a great match (with the sweetest awkward love song "Do You Love Me?"). Other highlights in the cast include Kelly Gabrielle Murphy, Ruthy Froch, and Noa Luz Barenblat as Tevye's three soon-to-be married daughters, and Daniel Kushner, Soloman Reynolds, and Jack O'Brien as their grooms. There's truly no weak link in this cast that must be 30 people.

the wedding scene (photo by Joan Marcus)
The score is full of iconic songs - "Tradition," "If I Were A Rich Man," "Sunrise, Sunset," and more. The music sounds gorgeous played by the 10-piece pit orchestra and sung by this cast. While historically most productions have used the original Jerome Robbins choreography, this production features new choreography by Hofesh Shechter. Somehow it still feels familiar (including the crowd-pleaseing bottle dance), yet fresh, new, and exciting. Hearing this amazing klezmer music (I love a clarinet solo!), and watching this authentic traditional yet modern dancing is such a thrill! And the dancers in this cast perform it brilliantly.

The world of Anatevka is represented in sepia tones in the sparse yet efficient set. Backdrops of the family home, village, or local drinking establishment lower from the ceiling, with set pieces rolled on and off stage as needed. The cast are dressed in muted traditional period clothing that feels, again, authentic, except for the Fiddler, dressed in brilliant purple, appearing as if like a spirit (embodied by Ali Arian Molaei). And the dream sequence gets pretty wild with oversized masks and stilts. (Set design by Michael Yeargan, costume design by Catherine Zuber.)

Even though this show is three hours, it never feels too long and moves at good pace, never dragging, under the guidance of renowned Broadway director by Bartlett Sher. This new production adds in a brief framing device, in which the actor playing Tevye walks on stage wearing a modern hooded jacket, reading from a book. He soon removes the jacket and becomes Tevye, becomes the story he was reading. At the end of the show, he dons the jacket again and gets back in line with his community forcibly leaving their home, with his hand on the Fiddler's shoulder, as if to say that this march, this searching for a home, this persecution, this struggle with holding on to traditions, faith, and family continues today. And unfortunately it does, for the global Jewish community as anti-Semitism has risen in recent years, and for other communities who have been forced to leave their homes due to war, violence, or poverty and go in search of a better life. Fiddler on the Roof honors those who persevere, time and again, on this never-ending journey to home.

Fiddler on the Roof continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through December 12.

*Plot summary borrowed from what I wrote about previous productions.