Fifty-five years ago, during what we now look back on as the golden age of Broadway, Sholem Aleichem’s folk tales of Tevye the dairy man and his five tradition-challenging daughters were adapted into the musical Fiddler on the Roof.
Although considered commercially risky at the time, it went on to become one of the longest-running shows ever on Broadway, and a hit around the world despite – or perhaps because of – its specific milieu of Jewish life in a Russian shtetl, circa 1905.
For most of the years since then, major productions of Fiddler were contractually obligated to use the staging and choreography of the legendary Jerome Robbins. While his visionary work on the show is admittedly brilliant, over time one yearned for a different approach to the material.
That came in 2015 with a New York revival by Bartlett Sher, who similarly revitalized South Pacific, The King and I and My Fair Lady. Except for a brief, unnecessary contemporary framing device, Sher’s version of Fiddler – and the new choreography by Hofesh Shechter – pay homage to Robbins without slavishly recreating it. And as we always suspected, the show is so well-constructed, with such a heartfelt Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score – “laden with happiness and tears,” as the song “Sunrise, Sunset” puts it – that it can accept and even be illuminated by various interpretations.
Simply put, Fiddler is among the top handful of great musicals of all time, as the touring production at the Kravis Center this week demonstrates. I defy you to see it and not hum along or find your cheeks getting wet.
Heading the cast is Israel’s Yehezkel Lazarov as a spry Tevye, who earns the laughs in Joseph Stein’s warm, wise script without resorting to the schtick that others have slathered on the role. He masterfully conveys the bewilderment – and later the anger – as one by one his daughters choose spouses without the assistance of a matchmaker, without asking his permission and, finally, outside of the Jewish faith.
Maite Uzal, as Tevye’s long-suffering wife Golde, underplays the role’s potential shrewishness. We actually believe she loves Tevye, long before we get to their conversational duet, “Do You Love Me?” Kelly Gabrielle Murphy is a lovely Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest daughter, gently domineering over nebbishy Motel the tailor (Nick Siccone). And Ruthy Froch’s soprano voice is well-showcased in Hodel’s whistle-stop farewell, “Far From the Home I Love.”
Perhaps the most distinctive element of the production, though, is Shechter’s choreography, notably the boisterous, whirling male ensemble, particularly in the tavern scene (“To Life”) and in the first act finale wedding. And yes, that dropped bottle in the iconic “Bottle Dance” is intentional.
Michael Yeargan’s scenic pieces are minimal yet artful. Still, you are likely to miss Boris Aronson’s original sets, an homage to Marc Chagall. Donald Holder’s lighting aids the show’s shifting moods, particularly at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding, which goes from the bright orange sky of “Sunrise, Sunset” to the gloom of the party-pooping pogrom.
As to that framing device, the show begins with Lazarov sporting a red parka over his Tevye garb, reading the musical’s opening lines from a book, presumably of Aleichem short stories. The puzzling moment is easy to forget as we quickly become involved in the plight of the people of Anatevka, but the added parka-clad character returns in the production’s final moments, insinuating himself into the community exodus, muddying the simple gesture of enlisting the Fiddler – the symbol of tradition – to join Tevye and his clan on their journey to America.
Director Sher apparently felt the need to put his defining stamp on the show. Many of his touches, including some unexpected line readings, are welcome. The value of the parka man is minor at best. Still, this is a Fiddler on the Roof to be cherished, a worthy production of a show that is a miracle of miracles.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 17. $39-$99. 561-832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.