Bartlett Sher’s dazzling revival of the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” recently landed at the Aronoff Center via Broadway in Cincinnati for a two-week run. It retains all its trademark spark and charm with some fresh twists. The show, which ran for nearly 500 performances and received three Tony nominations, boasts a tremendous touring cast, jaw-dropping choreography and a slate of beloved songs nearly unmatched in modern musical theater.
“Fiddler’s” range is staggering. It grapples with generational divides, bigotry, class struggles, isolation, authoritarianism, police and state brutality. It’s far from the only Broadway musical to deal with such heavy issues, but the grace and humor with which “Fiddler” handles them is what has made it such a perennial favorite over the last half century. This version adds a modern twist by bookending the performance with Yehezkel Lazarov (Tevye) in contemporary dress standing on a nearly-empty set at the train station, presumably a descendant of the musical’s characters looking back across the decades. There are visual references, overt and subtle, to contemporary refugee crises as well, cementing the show’s enduring relevance.
The show bursts out of the gate with a run of some of Broadway’s most iconic songs: “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “To Life” appear in rapid succession. But many of the musical’s most stirring moments are among its quietest: the tender “Do You Love Me?” The devastating second act pair of “Far From the Home I Love” and “Chavaleh (Little Bird).” This production is unafraid to employ quiet — even silence — and its dynamic juxtapositions are often jarring.
Israeli film and television star Lazarov is magnetic in the lead as Tevye. Today, the role is most closely associated with Chaim Topol’s iconic portrayal in the 1971 motion picture, likely more so than Zero Mostel’s original turn on Broadway. Wisely, Lazarov makes the role his own, starting with a twinkling vitality which wears and fades as the musical’s events take their toll. He carries the show on his shoulders and brings a tremendous physicality and warmth to one of theater’s greatest roles.
But this “Fiddler” has a monumental supporting cast as well. Maite Uzal’s dedicated matriarch Golde’s hard shell melts over the show as she holds the family together. Mel Weyn, Ruthy Froch, and Natalie Powers dazzle as Tevye and Golde’s three driven oldest daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava). Each has their own showcase moment as they step into the twentieth century as independent-minded young women. Jesse Weil is a delight as the young tailor Motel, Tzeitel’s suitor, and he brings the necessary unbridled joy to his shining moment in “Miracle of Miracles.”
This production’s biggest change to the source material comes in the form Hofesh Schechter’s stunning choreography. The film and earlier revivals have stuck to Jerome Robbins’s Tony-winning choreography, which Schechter cites as his inspiration. Glimpses of the original remain in Schechter’s version (Tevye’s gleeful shimmying in “Rich Man,” the ageless “Bottle Dance”), but the jaw-dropping group scenes call to mind Schechter’s background in folk dance-inspired modern ballet.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is a musical of the past. It’s been half a century since it’s record breaking reign over Broadway, and over 100 years since the events it portrays. But what makes “Fiddler” so beloved is the timelessness of its themes, the depth of its beloved characters, and its unforgettable songs. It is encouraging to see that in 2019, “Fiddler on the Roof” is as vibrant and relevant as ever.
Nat Tracey-Miller is a Cincinnati-based school librarian, musician, and cartophile whose love spans from Bowie to Beethoven to B.I.G. to Brubeck and hits every point in between. His writing has appeared in CincyMusic, Columbus Calling, Tome to the Weather Machine, Mixtape Methodology, and more. He records and performs locally with The Birds of America and ITAM.