A Review

Traditions In A Changing World

By R. J. Donovan

"Fiddler on the Roof," one of the world's most enduring musicals, first came to the Broadway stage in 1964, running for a record-breaking 3243 performances.  Since then, the story of Tevye, the Jewish Milkman, and his life in the Russian village of Anatevka, has been revived, toured, staged around the world and turned into a movie musical.

For audiences "of a certain age," Tevye will always be Zero Mostel. He created the role on Broadway, revived it and played it extensively on national tour much like Carol Channing with "Hello, Dolly!" and Yul Brynner with "The King and I."  Further, he will be heard for all time on the original Broadway cast recording.

When the musical was made into a film in 1971, the role of Tevye went to Chaim Topol (at left) who had played the role on the London stage in 1967 and would later return to the stage, starring in a revival at Lincoln Center. He has since played the role some 2500 times from Japan to Australia.

Presented by Broadway Across America, and directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes (who also recreates Jerome Robbins' original choreography), the current production is described as Topol's "Farewell Tour" in the show.

From the ease with which he performs the role on stage at The Opera House, you'd never know he's been saying the same words for four decades.  He's comfortable and warm and totally at ease. 

Unlike Mostel, who gave a big, boisterous performance, Topol underplays the role with a quiet sincerity that's endearing. Yes, he's powerful when it's called for, but he has a masterful way with subtle expression and small gestures.  As a result, the audience leans closer to connect rather than leaning back to take it all in.

With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and a book by Joseph Stein (based on original stories by Sholem Aleichem), the evening starts with "Tradition."   The number achieves a marvelous economy in setting the scene, explaining character and establishing the history of an entire village of people -- all within one wonderfully entertaining musical number. 

During the course of the story, Tevye works to take care of his wife and marry off his five daughters while wrestling with his strict religious traditions. The challenge is that the world around him is changing.

One daughter shatters all customs when she refuses to abide by the dealings of the town matchmaker to marry a rich but old widower. Instead, she chooses her own husband -- a poor but honest tailor.  Another daughter falls in love with a radical student from Kiev who winds up in jail. Again, Tevye finds it outrageous to allow one's daughter to become entangled with a man who cannot take care of her.  And a third daughter does the unthinkable, and is disinherited, when she marries a man outside of her religion.

In the end, Tevye does his best to adapt, even when he's forced from his home by the Tsar and must travel to America to make a new home.  He finds that life, indeed, is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof.

The chorus is uniformly blessed with solid singing voices, which make all the group numbers a joy, including the opening "Tradition" as well as the solemn "Sabbath Prayer." The male dancers also shine during the wedding scene with the Bottle Dance (at left).

The score includes a bounty of well known numbers including "Sunrise, Sunset," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" "If I Were A Rich Man," "Miracle of Miracles," and "Far From The Home I love."  

The supporting players are all serviceable, although they tend to blend together. The standout is the funny and expressive Mary Stout as Yente the meddling Matchmaker. Also, as Golde, Tevye's wife, Susan Cella provides a lovely complement to Topol's performance.  She is strong but loving, intolerant yet loyal.

And so Broadway Across America starts off its 2009-2010 season with an icon of the American Musical Theatre, laden with happiness and tears.

"Fiddler On The Roof" is at the Boston Opera House through November 15 . For information, call 800-982-2787.

-- Production Photos: Joan Marcus

-- OnStage Boston



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