While “Fiddler on the Roof” first came to national attention following its Broadway premiere 55 years ago, its comfortingly quaint plot by Joseph Stein (adapted from Sholem Aleichem’s short stories), as well as its fervent music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, have only acquired a greater import over time. The current national tour, which is now playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center through May 19th, is directly based on the musical’s fifth and most recent Broadway revival in 2015-16. It is slightly refreshed for the sake of modernity with a tip of the hat to refugees who could identify with the story of heritage, faith, and displacement through the experience of a Jewish family in a Russian shtetl (village) named Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century.
Bartlett Sher shrewdly directs this rendition while augmenting motifs on tradition and adaptation for greater audience engagement, and Hofesh Shechter contemporizes some of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, admixing faster-paced and frenetic elements that materialize delightfully in numbers like “To Life,” “Tevye’s Dream,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and especially “The Wedding,” inclusive of the crowd-pleasing bottle dance. The outcome is a show that never overstays its welcome, despite a nearly three-hour runtime, even in this smart phone-addicted era when attention spans are apt to falter.
The narrative of a hard-working, faithful father to five daughters in Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov), a cart-pulling dairyman, his fierce wife Golde (Maite Uzal), and the marital destiny of his three older (and headstrong) daughters, Tzeitel (Mel Weyn) Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Chava (Natalie Powers) remains ever-familiar in pop-culture lore, bolstered by not just the musical, but the 1971 film and even Gwen Stefani’s homage to “If I Were a Rich Man.” Through the yearning of these daughters, who are drawn to potential husbands more for love than their duty to Jewish culture, circumventing the efforts of a quirky matchmaker in Yente (Carol Beaugard), we see how established customs can paradoxically be both at odds and somehow in harmony with progressive ideals. Compounding this intimately familial struggle is a communal one in which the inhabitants of this village are forced out for simply being Jewish by the intransigent Constable (Jeff Brooks) and his men.
The eagerness that Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava have to pull away from what is expected of them has a visceral impact on Tevye, who clings to the tenets of his “Tradition,” not because he is naïve or lacks perceptiveness, but because he passionately believes that what he’s doing is for the betterment of his family. Examined from this angle, Tevye’s relationship with himself, God, and the Good Book is noble and, at the very least, heartwarming. Israeli film actor and director, Yehezkel Lazarov, is transformative in this role originated by Zero Mostel. With each one of Lazarov’s facial expressions, we feel Tevye’s frustrations and laugh heartily with him (and his fantastic one-liners) as he persists in his life’s station. Additionally, Lazarov, who took countless speech and vocal classes to prepare for his part, exhibits a physical and emotional breadth that is as complex as any real person in this humbling setting.
As Lazarov’s onstage wife, Golde, Maite Uzal commits to a performance that is steadfast and saucy. Golde more than complements her husband of 25 years; she is not only understanding but carries a confidence that legitimizes her as Tevye’s equal in the household. Furthermore, Mel Weyn, Ruthy Froch, and Natalie Powers galvanizingly play their personas as Tevye’s daughters with just the right amount of refractory chutzpah. And the daughters’ respective willful objects of desire – the tailor, Motel (Jesse Weil), the revolutionary-minded student, Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia), and the gentile, Fyedka (Joshua Logan Alexander) – are highlighted by their resolve in letting Tevye know of their conjugal intentions.
The jaunty ensemble, which has a strong Jewish contingent among them, deserves much praise for how well they sustain the ethos of the story and energy onstage, which is equitably shared and held accountable for. We cheer for them as they festively dance and whoop “hey, hey,” but we also empathize with their characters’ struggles of being encumbered by those who are abjectly intolerant.
The scenic design by Michael Yeargan captures the modest brick-constructed domiciles and living conditions that come across as purposely temporary so as to hint at the fact that these Jews might unfortunately be resigned to the notion of relinquishing everything and fleeing oppression (again).
The song numbers are some of the most stirring of any musical, denoting a family’s courage and heart to reconcile their own matters amid the macrocosmic crisis of their own people. Musical director Michael Uselmann and arranger Ted Sperling ensure that each note communicates, or at least strongly implies, an ardency and urgency that keep the viewer enthralled throughout.
Suffice it to say, the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” is akin to unearthing a time capsule (in this case, from 1964) only to add a present-day note of how, no matter how often things change, they have a tendency to regrettably stay the same, particularly with regard to racial discrimination. Nevertheless, the perseverance and unbreakable bond that binds Tevye and his family – despite some generational differences – is an encouraging reminder that we shouldn’t stop looking toward a better and hopefully more inclusive future.