By Kim Jackson
Seeing a production of Fiddler on the Roof resembles how 16th-century theatergoers might have seen a Shakespearean play — most are familiar with both the story and the music. So you go to see how these actors will play their roles, execute the action, sing and dance the music that you almost know by heart. You are swept in by the opening notes that signal “Tradition” and the exuberant dancing by the villagers of Anatevka. Your heartstrings are plucked as you watch three of Tevye’s daughters fall in love, and if you are of a certain age, you feel the pain as Tevye confronts the changes wrought by the outside world and children growing up. This story offers both comfort and heartache, and the current touring production at the Durham Performing Arts Center combines the traditional with a freshness that creates a delightful nostalgic experience.
The Jerome Robbins’ Tony Award-winning production premiered on Broadway in 1964 and has been revived five times. Last summer, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene produced a Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Joel Grey. That production was presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and will open for a limited run at Stage 42 next month.
The most captivating part of the touring production was the inspired choreography of Hofesh Schecter with dancers whirling through numbers with ballet precision infused with humorous and telling gestures. Most enjoyable was the bottle dance at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel, as well as the puppet-headed dancers and larger-than-life Fruma-Sarah of Tevye’s nightmare/dream. Both the music and vocal talent are what is to be expected at this level, and the production afforded ample opportunities for the cast to show off their range of abilities. And while the most emotional moments of the production came as Tevye, played by Yehezkel Lazarov, and Golde, played by Maite Uzal, bid goodbye to their daughters played by Ruthy Froch, Natalie Powers, and Mel Weyn, the performances were less feeling and passionate than one might expect from this story. Where were the joy and pain?
This is a play about life, its ups, and downs, and while the story is set in 1905 Russia as the Tsar is driving the Jews from their homes, it’s reflective and relatable in its questions about God’s will, fate, destiny, and our ability to change. This story captures that bittersweet nature of life, that mourning of losses and changes are inevitable, and children grow up and have new ideas, as well as thoughts and desires parents are quite powerless to face down.
And although based on stories written by Sholem Aleichem at the turn of the century, the story is surprisingly telling and relevant today as the current fate of immigrants is hostile and unsettling at best. Tevye would have had quite a conversation with God on that subject.
Fiddler on the Roof runs through Sunday, January 13th at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit: https://www.dpacnc.com/.
Photo by Joan Marcus.