By Mike Hoban
“Fiddler on the Roof” – Based on Sholem Aleichem stories by special permission of Arnold Perl; Book by Joseph Stein; Music by Jerry Bock and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins; Directed by Austin Pendleton; Music direction by Wade Russo; Choreographed by Kelli Edwards. Presented by the New Repertory Theatre at the Charles Mosesian Theater at 325 Arsenal St., Watertown through January 1st.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is truly a brilliant piece of American theater, because it works on so many different levels. The show debuted in 1964 and was once the most successful musical in Broadway history (running for over 3,000 performances and copping nine Tonys) – and it’s easy to see why. Not only does it feature a brilliant score and a book that simultaneously tells the story a loving father attempting to deal with a cultural heritage that is rapidly breaking with the old ways (and a political one that is descending into horror), it’s also loaded with Borscht Belt humor that still works well today (“May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!” says Tevye, the story’s protagonist). New Rep has mounted a terrific production that functions beautifully as entertainment, but as artistic director Jim Petosa noted before the opening of the show, there’s a “new found resonance” for the piece in light of recent political events.
“Fiddler” opens with Reb Tevye (Jeremiah Kissel), a dirt poor dairy farmer with five daughters (and no sons), explaining to the audience how life works in his little Russian Jewish village of Anatevka during Tsarist rule, about a dozen years before the revolution of 1917. The village is largely isolated from the goings on of the outside world and the villagers lives are run in accordance with their orthodox religious philosophy and of “Tradition” – the show’s first big musical number. Tevye is apparently on a first name basis with God, whom he conveys his disappointments to, asks guidance from, and occasionally makes a humble request of (in the Broadway standard “If I were a Rich Man”, which Kissel really makes his own).
Local matchmaker Yente (played with comic verve by Bobbie Steinbach) has good news for Golde (Amelia Broome), Tevye’s beleaguered wife. The well-to-do butcher Lazar Wolfe, lonely after his wife’s passing, has his eye on their oldest daughter, Tzeitel, and he wants to ask Tevye for her hand in marriage. There are a few complications, however. Lazar is at least twice Tzeitel’s age and Tzeitel plans to marry poor tailor Motel Kamzoil (a wonderfully cast Patrick Varner), her sweetheart since childhood. This sets the stage for another hit tune/dance number from the show, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” where the three girls examine the pros and (mostly) cons of having a marriage arranged for them by Yente.
Tevye initially agrees (in the lively song and dance scene “To Life”) to allow Lazar to marry his daughter, and there is great drunken celebration by the men, but in the first sign that traditions, customs, and life itself are subject to change no matter how desperately we wish to cling to the familiar, Teyve relents and lets his daughter follow her heart. Which sets the stage for the wedding and another American standard, “Sunrise, Sunset” before the play turns darker when both local infighting and nationalist politics rear their ugly heads.
The show is full of great production numbers, and in addition to the aforementioned Broadway “hits” there’s the vastly underrated heart-tugger, “Do You Love Me”, a question posed by Tevye to his wife after 25 years of an arranged marriage and answered in duet by Golde. The cast is solid and cohesive, and the three oldest daughters – each of whose non-traditional method of choosing their husbands causes their father much turmoil – are one of the real strengths of the production, with Abby Goldfarb as Tzeitel, Sarah Oakes Muirhead as Hodel and Victoria Britt as Chava. The trio shine in the “Matchmaker” number (playfully choreographed by Kelli Edwards). Muirhead, who is a bonafide rising star, also delivers a magnificent interpretation of the heart-wrenching “Far From The Home I Love”.
But like many great musicals, what makes “Fiddler” such a great work is not the collection of individual performances but the brilliance of the piece itself. The book and score present a series of complex relationships where love wins out in spite of difficulties, set against the backdrop of a cold world that is about to get a lot colder. This is a first rate production of a classic American musical. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/