Reviving a beloved musical can be a daunting proposition. Do you keep faith with tradition, or do you try something new? If you opt for a little of both, how much of each? It’s hard to find the balance — a bit like trying to play a fiddle on the roof.
“You might say that every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck” — so opens “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s short stories set in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka in 1905. The 1964 Broadway production won nine Tony Awards, and it has rarely been off a stage, somewhere in the world, ever since. Most productions have retained Jerome Robbins’ original choreography.
In 2015, director Bartlett Sher undertook a “Fiddler” revival, daringly inviting a new choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, who had never worked on Broadway before, to update Robbins’ work. Critical reactions were mixed.
Now, the national tour of Sher’s production has arrived in L.A. for a three-week run at the Hollywood Pantages theater. (It then moves to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa for two weeks.) On opening night, several people told me that their hearts belonged to the 1971 film or to some earlier theater production of “Fiddler."
As someone who had never really committed to a “Fiddler,” I found this one powerfully seductive. It wasn’t the narrative framing device Sher added — two wordless moments at the beginning and end of the musical — that won me over. (Without spoiling the surprise, I will say I didn’t fully understand it at first, but I’ve since gotten it.) No, my initial attraction can be attributed largely to Yehezkel Lazarov, the Israeli film and TV star who plays Tevye, the story's narrator and protagonist.
Tevye, the village dairyman, struggles to make ends meet. He pulls his milk cart while his horse recovers from injury. He’s a dutiful husband to his sharp-tongued wife, an attentive father to his five girls, a devout Jew fully invested in his culture's “Tradition” (described in the opening number), if not completely reconciled to his poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”). Tevye talks to both the audience and his God in irresistible one-liners worthy of a Borscht Belt comedian.
As a character, he's hard not to love, not just for his way with words but also because his struggles have such universal resonance. One by one, Tevye's three older daughters violate tradition by choosing their own husbands, rather than submitting to the matchmaker Yente (Carol Beaugard).
After Tzeitel (Mel Weyn) is promised to 60-year-old butcher Lazar Wolf (Jonathan Von Mering), she begs Tevye to let her marry Motel the tailor (Jesse Weil) instead. As soon as Tevye loses this battle, he loses the war. His second daughter, Hodel (Ruthy Froch), goes off to Siberia with a young Marxist (Ryne Nardecchia), while book-loving Chava (Natalie Powers) falls for a hunky Cossack.
Tevye struggles with these challenges to his authority, his community and his faith. In the end, his paternal love triumphs. But as heroic as his journey is, it’s also tragic. Cossacks raid Anatevka and send all its inhabitants into exile, ending its traditions forever.
As indelibly played by the charismatic Zero Mostel (onstage) and Chaim Topol (in the movie), Tevye is a cultural touchstone: a flawed but loving patriarch, a loyal husband, a warmhearted neighbor, a symbol of resilience in the face of injustice.
Lazarov has the humorous warmth, the comic timing, the familiar beleaguered but mischievous attitude toward his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal). He also happens to be handsome, adding heat to the wry duet about arranged marriage he sings with Golde, “Do You Love Me?” It’s almost steamy.
Shechter’s choreography shifts some of the dances from decorous and quaint to impassioned and even a little dangerous. Men’s black coats flap like bat wings as they spin, as if they might lose control and fly off into space.
Shechter hasn't done away with all of Robbins’ beloved numbers: The bottle dance at Tzeitel’s wedding, in which dancers balance wine bottles on their heads, is still there, though augmented with more gravity-defying moves. The choreographer has added a moment in which one dancer lets his bottle drop — maybe to remind us of how precarious putting on a musical can be.
As it happens, the struggle for balance is also a theme of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tradition and change, the past and the future, dreams and reality, love and duty, community and individuality, all exert competing forces on us. That rare moment when somebody can find a footing in this maelstrom looks like a miracle.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’
In Costa Mesa: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6 p.m Sundays, May 7-19. $29 and up. (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org
Future spring and summer stops: San Jose; San Diego; Las Vegas; Denver; Tulsa, Okla.; Nashville, Tenn.; Minneapolis; Dallas; Fort Worth. See additional stops scheduled for fall and 2020 at fiddlermusical.com