Fiddler on the Roof Review — Tradition Worth Keeping

With the holiday season come theatrical chestnuts. For the extended Thanksgiving weekend, what perennial show could be a more worthy chestnut — a kosher one at that — than Fiddler on the Roof?

 

Fiddler on the Roof premiered in 1964 and has not been out of circulation since. The musical eschews the glitz of contemporary Broadway shows and focuses on substance, asking the important question: when do we choose to cling to tradition and when is it time to embrace change?

 

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof

Many in the audience at the Auditorium Theatre will have seen the musical multiple times on stage or screen, making them as familiar with Joseph Stein’s affecting book as the actors themselves. Yet to hear once again the show’s many memorable lines can still delight.

 

The best lines fall to Tevye (John Preece), the poor milkman who struggles to support his wife Golde (Pamela D. Chabora) and their five daughters in a shtetl in tsarist Russian. In one memorable line Tevye tells the rabbi’s son Mendel (Alex Herrera): “As the good book says, when a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.” When Perchik (Joshua Phan-Gruber), a freethinking student from Kiev who is wooing daughter-number-two Hodel (Sarah Sesler), tells Tevye that money is the world’s curse, Tevye doesn’t miss a beat: “May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover.”

 

John Preece as Tevye, Stephen Charles Turner as the Fiddler

But Tevye bounces his most profound thoughts off of an offstage cast member, God: “Sometimes I think, when it gets too quiet up there, You say to Yourself, ‘What kind of mischief can I play on My friend Tevye?’” No need for God to answer. Tevye gets his own dialectic spinning as he examines his problems from both sides, repeatedly beginning with “On the other hand…”

 

The role of Tevye is critical to any production of Fiddler on the Roof, and Preece is more than adequate in it. If I had not seen iconic Tevyes portrayed by Topol and Theodore Bikel, I might have been happier with Preece’s performance. Preece’s voice is fine, better perhaps than Topol’s, but his acting is not as nuanced. On the other hand, as Tevye would say, Bikel is now 87 and Topol 76, and Preece has the stamina for this demanding role. This is his tenth national tour of Fiddler on the Roof, and he has performed in the show more than 3,400 times, more than 1,780 of those performances as Tevye.

 

The men of Anatevka gather for a drink

Director Sammy Dallas Bayes’ production works best when enlivened by the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, as in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” when mops stand in for potential grooms and for Yente, the Matchmaker (Barbi McGuire). Other scenes, such as the wedding between eldest daughter Tzeitel (Brooke Hills) and impoverished tailor Motel (Andrew Boza) are surprisingly static in their staging, despite the presence of the entire community and the lilting “Sunrise, Sunset.” Other quiet moments — when the rest of the cast freezes in profile while Tevye talks things through with God — work better. This production lacks the edge of darker versions that draw depth from the play’s historic setting prefiguring the Holocaust. In Bayes’ version, the mini-pogrom that follows the wedding is more like a pillow fight.

 

But not every theatergoer is looking for darkness, especially on a holiday weekend. And with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof brims with one now classic tune after another, sung by an enthusiastic cast. David B. Springstead, Sr. stands out in the role of Lazar Wolf, as do Sesler and Phan-Gruber. Also good is Chelsey LeBel as Chava, the daughter who tests Tevye’s willingness to bend by falling in love with a non-Jew, Fyedka (Michael Shultz). The perfect acoustics of the Auditorium Theatre enhance the experience.

 

One helpful note for parents of younger children: I went with a friend who borrowed a booster wedge from the coat check to elevate her eight-year-old son, who proclaimed it comfortable and said it gave him a good view of the action. Nice to know that some theaters make these available.

 

 

Fiddler on the Roof

Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago

Tuesday, Nov. 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 7 p.m.

Friday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Sunday, Nov. 27 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Tickets $26–$85 at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line (800) 775-2000 and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com; also at Ticketmaster retail locations

 

Photos: Carol Rosegg

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