“Fiddler on the Roof,” a traditional tale with timeless themes, returned Dec. 18 to Broadway in Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre for the first time since 2011.
Written by composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and playwright Joseph Stein, “Fiddler on the Roof” first debuted on Broadway in 1964. It follows the story of a poor and silly but stern Jewish milkman Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov) and his assertive, no-nonsense wife Golde (Maite Uzal). The play also focuses on Tevye’s five daughters, the lovestruck Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), the bold Hodel (Ruthy Froch), the well read Chava (Natalie Powers), and the less relevant Shprintze (Danielle Allen) and Bielke (Emerson “Emmy” Glick) as they endure the trials of marriage, poverty and life in Imperial Russia.
The Fiddler (Paul Morland) is a metaphorical physical embodiment of the struggles faced by the Jewish people who live in the Russian village of Anatevka. He slinks around the stage in a violet suit, playing his fiddle and enigmatically appearing during dream sequences and Tevye’s internal monologues. If trouble is brewing, the Fiddler is nearby.
“In our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof,” Tevye says in his opening monologue, “Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.”
Everyone likely has a Tevye in their lives — someone traditional but open-minded, strict but lovable and an infectious sense of humor. They’re someone who will mock their significant other until the cows come home — which, for a milkman, would be quite a wait — but loves them with every fiber.
Lazarov’s portrayal of Tevye steals the show. The Israeli actor and director has such a clear connection to his character that it borders on impossible to picture him in any other role. From his lumbering body language, witty mannerisms and dad jokes to his perfect pacing of dialogue and sensitive display of love and pride for his family, watching Lazarov makes audiences feel like meeting a friend’s father and wanting a trade.
The sets, while minimal, are just enough to illustrate the dire financial situation of the family while staying true to the time period. In one scene, cutouts of shack-like houses with warm, glowing windows hang over the stage, illuminating Tevye and Lazar Wolf (Jonathan von Mering), drunkenly falling out of the bar.
“Fiddler on the Roof” takes place in 1905, just 12 years before the February Revolution, when the royal family of Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanovs were overthrown and communism was instituted in Russia. The inevitable onslaught of communism is foreshadowed throughout the play, especially through the character of Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia), a Bolshevik revolutionary who fancies himself a scholar and progressive thinker.
“Great changes are about to take place in this country,” Perchik says in the play, “But they can’t happen by themselves.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” isn’t just a catalog of great Jewish baby names. It’s a foot-tapping, family-friendly musical that only gets better with age, as well as a social commentary that tackles topics of importance to 20th century Jews such as immigration, economic inequality and growing anti-semitic hate crimes.
Though the musical was written over 50 years ago and takes place more than a century in the past, many of the themes are still relevant today. What the family lacks in wealth they must make up in love, be it familial or romantic. Economic inequality continues to be a burden for people all over the world, and in the U.S. it has steadily risen since the 1970s. As of 2015, the top 1 percent of families make 26.3 times as much as the bottom 99 percent on average, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The musical, though often whimsical and light-hearted, also touches the controversial subject of immigration, as the family is forced by the Russian government to leave the only home they’ve ever known and bravely move to the U.S. without a lick of knowledge of American culture or the English language.
It also tackles anti-semitic hate crimes in a pre-Holocaust world. Tevye is called a “Jewish dog” by the town’s constable and the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel is viciously ransacked by Russian soldiers. Anti-semitism is a growing attitude in the U.S. today, with a 57% increase in ant-semitic incidents in 2017, the most since 1994, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The cultural influence of “Fiddler on the Roof” is often overlooked, particularly in the songs. The song “Sunrise, Sunset” is among the most popular father-daughter dances at weddings. Without Tevye’s “If I Were a Rich Man,” Gwen Stefani’s iconic 2004 pop single, “Rich Girl,” never could have existed, and “To Life (L’Chaim)” is a classic drinking song.
Nearly every song had the audience laughing, crying or in a perpetual state of jaw-dropping awe. At the wedding of Motel (Jesse Weil) and Tzeitel, three ensemble members, clad in black suits, top hats and dense, bushy beards kept glass bottles balanced on their heads as they perform a traditional bottle dance. This number had the audience clapping before it was even over.
While “Fiddler on the Roof” borders on the edge of perfect, it’s not without its flaws. There’s a blatant disregard for the title of the show. The Fiddler, while obscure and entertaining, is never actually on a roof. As for the performances, one of the bottle dancers lost his balance, letting the bottle topple from his hat, and while Froch has the singing voice of an angel, she delivers the rest of her lines at a much harsher volume than her fellow castmates.
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs nearly three hours, but it hardly feels that way. It dashes from scene to scene and never wastes a moment. The ending, while bleak, leaves audiences with the hope that Tevye and his family will find a better life in America.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph St.) through Jan. 6. Tickets start at $25 and can purchased online at http://www.broadwayinchicago.com/show/fiddler-on-the-roof/.