by MIKE CHAIKEN
The director of the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Bartlett Sher, clearly wants the classic musical to be a parable for modern times.
The tale of a Russian Jew milkman and father of five daughters stopped at The Bushnell in Hartford Tuesday night for a run that continues through Sunday.
Although the tale—crafted by the creative team of Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harrick(lyrics)– is set in Czarist Russia at the time of the Jewish pogroms, it’s understandable that its plot about changing traditions and changing roles– and the issues that drive a mass of exodus of immigrants- fits squarely into the events unfolding across the globe in 2018.
The show opens with the song “Tradition,” which sets out the tenet that it is crucial we maintain our ties to the past. In the opening number, we are told fathers are fathers; mothers are mothers; sons are sons; and daughters are daughters. Within the village in 1905, the roles of each are strictly defined. And most importantly as the plot unfolds, neither men nor women enter marriage for any other reason than to build a better life for themselves. And marriage is always overseen by the village matchmaker.
The role of the father is to consent or to deny the proposed matchmaking with the mother only gently prodding the father.
But in this world, although the community tries to maintain the predominance of tradition, outside forces are working to undermine this bedrock of convention.
In the case of “Fiddler. . ., human nature – in this case romantic love– asserts itself. And the world outside – in the form of the world’s historic anti-Semitism and the rise of socialism —also demands the villagers’ attention.
Tevye, the main character and the narrator- finds himself at the center of this sea change. As change happens, one part of him worries his role as “papa” is being diminished. But another part of him recognizes the inevitability of change and it must be God’s will if it happens.
The producers of this road tour are smart enough to not hammer home their attempt to update the tale and have it to closely reflect the current times. The changes to the direction of the show, like Tevye’s role in the story, are more evolutionary than revolutionary. For instance, the female characters are now portrayed as less subservient to the males. In fact, the women serve as agents of change while the men are the reluctant travelers.
Besides the effective update of the plot, the show is bolstered considerably by a strong cast that keeps the audience entertained.
Yehezkel Lazarov breaks with tradition in the role of Tevye. While the role is historical associated with rotund jovial performers, such as Zero Mostel, Lazarov is a statuesque man, who physically stands head and shoulders above the remaining cast. However, Lazarov plays him as a playful gentle giant. Tevye, in his hands, however is still a likeable character, one the audience roots for and sympathizes with. He has fine singing voice. I loved his power in “Tradition,” humor in “If I Were A Rich Man,” and his loving touch on “Do You Love Me.”
Maite Uzal as Tevye’s wife Golde also does a superb job as the strong, willful matriarch of the clan. She clearly is the glue that holds the family. And Uzal shows the character’s distress as even the glue cannot serve as a bulwark to change.
In keeping with this production’s theme of breaking away from tradition, Mel Weyn is delightful as Tzeitel, the headstrong eldest daughter of Tevye. She is the pioneer of change in the clan as she refuses the matchmaker’s choice of an elderly butcher as her husband-to-be and insists on marrying the tailor who she loves.
One of the highlights of the evening is her performance on “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” in tandem with her sisters Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Chava (Natalie Powers).
Another exciting dimension of this road show is the choreography of Hofesh Shecter, built on the bedrock of the original work of the legendary Jerome Robbins. The dance numbers on “Tradition,” “To Life,” and “The Bottle Dance” clearly demonstrate the joy of the villagers, despite the storm clouds of history on the horizon.
The entire cast– from the main characters to the ensemble— was a joy to watch.
“Fiddler on the Roof,” through the years, has been trotted out many times by all manner of theater companies. And, frankly, it had become a bit of a musical dinosaur.
But this production pulls “Fiddler on the Roof” away from the brink of stage show extinction and demonstrates that rumors of its irrelevance were overexaggerated.
I give the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” at The Bushnell 3 ½ out of four stars
“Fiddler on the Roof” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford on Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Matinees are Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.
For tickets, go to www.Bushnell.org