Review: With the war in Ukraine, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ takes on a palpable new meaning
Overnight thoughts on “Fiddler on the Roof,” which played two performances this week at the Saroyan Theatre:
Sturdy and worthwhile: If you’ve never seen “Fiddler on the Roof,” what shtetl have you been hiding in? If you were one of the few in the audience who hadn’t experienced this classic show’s gorgeous and witty score, not to mention its sweeping themes of loss and love, this national tour had a joyous, buoyant feel.
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Minimalism is key: Director Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Broadway revival nodded toward realism and stripped away some of the excesses of past productions. (Memorable lines from “Forbidden Broadway’s” poke at the 2004 production: “Golde now looks like a fashion editor for Vogue.” And later, Golde describes her wardrobe: “My babushka is Ralph Lauren; my apron is Chanel. It’s all very peasant chic.”) I like the current tour’s austerity; the scenic design is spare – one put-upon cherry tree gets dragged relentlessly about the stage – and there are times when the action takes place scenery-free. This is no golden-hued, musty feeling period piece. The storyline feels pert, quippy and nearly contemporary.
There are still some big visual moments: The “Tevye’s Dream” segment is clever and peppy, with a towering Fruma-Sarah resembling the world’s tallest cheerleader megaphone. And even though I joke about the tree, the backyard of Tevye’s home is beautifully realized.
The vocals and acting are strong: All three older daughters (Leah Platt as Tzeitel, Graceann Kontak as Hodel and Yarden Barr as Chava) are standouts in this non-Equity tour, with “Matchmaker” having a particularly poignant impact. Their respective romantic attractions are likewise impressive; Elliot Lazar’s tailor Motel has a cute-puppy charisma, and Austin J. Gresham’s Perchik brims with revolutionary vigor. Golde (Maite Uzal) finds a rough-hewn comic bent to her character.
Tevye gets the job done: Jonathan Hashmonay has a nice voice, though on opening night he never bonded with the audience with a thick-as-a-tree-root connection as I’ve seen other Tevyes do.
The choreography is so-so. I had high hopes for the movements of Israeli-born choreographer Hofesh Shechter, who was said to keep the spirit of Jerome Robbins’ work while giving it a modern spin. I wasn’t all that impressed. The Fiddler (Ali Arian Molaei), dressed in a royal-purple cloak, seemed to gyrate and wiggle about the stage. As an ensemble, the dancers were vigorous but often seemed to form an indistinct clump, and sometimes they were a touch out of sync.
The Ukraine connection is palpable. “Fiddler” has taken on a tender new meaning with the current war in Ukraine. In a time when the new pronunciation of “Kyiv” has penetrated the American consciousness, using its distinct modern ring in dialogue in “Fiddler” is powerful, as if the cast is paying tribute. (When there needs to be two syllables for a song lyric, things have to revert back to “Ki-ev.”) As the villagers of Anatevka become refugees, they are transformed into silhouettes against a glowing white backdrop as they walk in a circle, symbolizing their forced march. In that moment, they become like cut-outs, ceasing to be the specific characters we’ve grown accustomed to in the past three hours, and become more like archetypes. In the midst of war, the message of the show leaps from the past into the present. That’s what really makes this “Fiddler” sing.