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Mazel-Tov, Stratford. And Yasher Koach While We’re At It

Learning to love Fiddler on the Roof

I should confess up-front: I’ve never really liked Fiddler on the Roof.

I’m not 100% sure why that is. Part of it is simply that it’s a ’60s musical, and hence afflicted with the oozing sentimentality and structural second act problems that are endemic to musicals of that period. (Camelot – check. Man of La Mancha – check. Cabaret – check. I always feel like Roger De Bris watching these shows: “That whole third act has got to go. They’re losing the war. It’s too depressing.”)

And part of it is a specific Jewish hangup of mine. The Mikado breezily seizes upon exotic Japan and has its way with it for William S. Gilbert’s own purposes, as, in a very different mode, does Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, and neither appropriation bothers me in the slightest. But the transparent repurposing of Sholom Aleichem’s stories to serve the emotional and social needs of the show’s American Jewish audience drives me nuts. (I will note, however, that the repurposed story seems to suit the Japanese just fine.)

So it says something about the quality of the current Stratford production of the musical that, at intermission, I turned to my wife and said, “I am having an absolutely fabulous time. I’m so glad we came.”

A big portion of the credit goes to Scott Wentworth, who absolutely nails the central character. For all my complaints about Bock, Harnick and Stein’s show, there’s no doubt in my mind that Tevye is a great character, situated somewhere between Pseudolus and Mother Courage. Among the key things Wentworth got was that Tevye is playing not for us (except in “Tradition,” which is why he isn’t really Tevye yet in that number), but for an audience of himself, and his God – so you don’t need to milk him, to ham him up. When Tevye talks to God, he’s having a conversation with someone he feels is right there. It’s very Breslover – compare Tevye’s conversation with God to with the way the main character, Moshe, in the wonderful Israeli movie, “Ushpizin,” talks, you’ll see the similarity. And Wentworth got that. Wentworth’s sincerity was front-and-center in “Sabbath Prayer” – the moment felt completely natural, something this man does every week, not something he’s making a point about for us. And his rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man” was equally sincere, which is what makes Tevye’s material hunger as charming as his childlike religiosity. Looking at Wentworth, I saw my grandfather; I saw Jacob the patriarch.

Over and over again, Wentworth declined to milk obvious ham lines (“you know – you are also right”) while making novel comic choices with lines often played for sentimentality (most notably, “it doesn’t change a thing” at the end of his duet with Golde, “Do You Love Me;” Wentworth played the line as a warning – don’t expect that I’m going to knuckle under to your nagging now – rather than the usual rueful sigh). And this natural sincerity pays off when he brutally rejects Chava. It’s not so much that he would have to violate his beliefs to accept her as a Christian. It’s that what he lives for is to love his daughters, and his language for expressing that love can only be Jewish. By rejecting that language, she’s rejecting his love, whether she sees it that way or not.

Tevye is deeply devoted to his daughters (like Job before him), and Wentworth gets a great deal of support from all of his three eldest. The open, round-faced Jennifer Stewart is a charming Tzeitel, and a completely apposite match for the timid but striving Motel (played like a taut string by André Morin). Jacquelyn French, besides having a voice perfectly suited for her second-act farewell number, conveyed Hodel’s fierce attachment to her home, and to the way of life she ultimately leaves. She does not want to go because she was frustrated where she was, but because her fierceness has found a new point of attachment, Mike Nadajewski’s Trofimovian Perchik. And I was very pleased to see that Keely Hutton got Chava’s self-absorption (and, incidentally, I’m so happy this production included her dance). But there’s really no performance that couldn’t be similarly called out; it’s a very solid company from start to finish.

And another big portion of the credit has to go to the direction and design of the production – director and choreographer Donna Feore, set designer Alan Moyer, and Costume Designer Dana Osborne all deserve their own ovation. I particularly want to call out Tevye’s dream, which was not only wonderfully kinetic but genuinely eerie, with twisted day-glo masks inspired more by Bruno Schulz (or possibly the Quay Brothers’ version thereof) than by the sentimental Chagallery that adorned the ceiling (and which inspired the title of the musical in the first place). The scene felt like a gesture toward a darker, uncanny old country that Fiddler usually avoids in its desperate effort to appease the ghosts of the audience’s parents and grandparents, and I appreciated that gesture enormously.

It should go without saying that the big Act I dance numbers – “To Life” and the bottle dance – bring the house down. But I even warmed to “Sunrise, Sunset,” which I loathe. (Of course, some numbers – “The Rumor,” anyone? – cannot be saved no matter what you do.)

The day after, I remembered why I still find this musical deeply suspect and manipulative. I think anyone who wants to mount Fiddler should not only go back to the original Sholom Aleichem – which this production, to its great credit, clearly did – but take a dip into Yuri Slezkine’s provocative book, The Jewish Century, which uses Tevye and his daughters as an overarching metaphoric framework for the possible destinations for the Jews of the Russian Empire during the 20th century. I don’t know exactly what reading the book would do for a prospective director, or star; maybe it would just give me something to discuss with them after the show.

But while I was watching, none of that was on my mind. This production reminded me that, for all my problems with it, this musical is telling the story of people I love. People who, if you play them honestly, are real. And, because they are real, they’ll break your heart, even if you’re determined they won’t.

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Stratford Festival Theater through October 20th.



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