Families torn apart by a conflict over social mores. Whole communities uprooted by militant police and forced to abandon the only home they’ve ever loved. Immigrants forced to wander the globe to simply find a peaceful place to call home.
This isn’t a radical new ripped-from-the-headlines play, “Fiddler on the Roof,” a classic of musical theater whose moment of relevance has, sadly, come around again. The new national tour (playing through April 7 at Bass Concert Hall, thanks to Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts) is a timely, relevant remounting that reminds us of the power of the musical’s story.
With a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, “Fiddler on the Roof” is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the milkman. The play follows Tevye’s trials and tribulations in the small Russian village of Anatevka as he struggles to make a living while his oldest daughters seek to get married, all set amidst the violent backdrops of the pogroms.
Though intensely and authentically Jewish in nature, in its specificity “Fiddler” manages to tell a more universal story, a facet of the text recognized by director Bartlett Sher. A unique framing device begins with the actor playing Tevye in the current day, reading from a book while looking over the empty ruins of Anatevka, thus linking the forced removal of Jews from the village with our own modern world. This link is further reinforced by the nameless, mute fiddler who haunts Tevye throughout the play, a symbol of the traditions that run from the distant past through to the present day.
Though it features a great deal of pathos and weighty themes, there is an equally strong vein of joy that runs through this production of “Fiddler.” This is embodied in the lively, energetic dance numbers (originally choreographed by Hofesh Shechter and recreated by Christopher Evans); the utterly charming performances of Mel Weyn, Ruthy Froch and Natalie Powers as daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava; and the disarming, mirthful portrayal of Tevye himself by Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov.
As opposed to the traditional take on Tevye as a kind of jocular, put-upon everyman, Lazarov’s Tevye is a bit of a mischief-maker. In addition to allowing for a lot of humor and warmth, this version of Tevye adds emotional resonance as he struggles with the radical ways his daughters buck tradition. As a bit of a rascal himself, Tevye is ultimately responsible for the girls’ strong wills, as is his long-suffering wife, Golde, played with an equal dose of stolid strength and inner rebellious warmth by Maite Uzal.
In an era where anti-semitism is on the rise at a faster rate than any time since World War II, it’s impossible not to find renewed relevance in “Fiddler on the Roof.” But the show’s melancholy themes — and its joyful celebration of life itself, good or bad — resonate beyond Jewish audiences, and speak to the importance of love and empathy in fighting against prejudice, oppression and hide-bound tradition.
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