Fiddler on the Roof
Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book)
When the news is filled with stories of refugees, travel bans, increasing incidence of "hate crimes", fear and loathing of migrants and mistrust of minority cultures, what could be more timely than the revival of a musical that deals with prejudice, persecution and the processes by which cultural traditions can simultaneously enrich and isolate a community?
We are in a shtetl (a small town with a largely jewish population) in tsarist Russia at the very beginning of the 20th century. The milkman Tevye is blessed (but also burdened, in this culture) with five daughters. Whilst tradition dictates that the Matchmaker, Yente (Pauline Daniels), should arrange husbands for him to approve, Tevye’s three elder girls have different ideas.
One by one, each girl finds her own man to love, in each case presenting their father with a dilemma. Does he stand firm by tradition—without which his community’s foothold in the world is as tenuous as a fiddler, balanced precariously on the roof? Or does he, as a loving father, grant his daughters happiness with the men they love?
Ultimately, the answer, movingly and credibly, is that tradition can only be made to bend so far, and Tevye will not be the man to break it altogether. There is joy and heartbreak, here.
Casting a grim shadow over the shtetl is the spectre of antisemitism. Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof, was heavily criticised for humanising the agent of tsarist persecution, the constable; cruel and brutal in Sholem Aleichem’s original stories. However, this softening of the character proves more thought-provoking and brings to mind that repeated excuse, post-1945, “I was only following orders.”
An actor could be forgiven for being daunted by the prospect of taking on a role made famous by the marvellous Topol and created by the even more marvellous Zero Mostel. However, Patrick Brennan’s Tevye is all his own—overflowing with warmth, wit and not a little wisdom. His monologues (especially when confronting the challenges of his daughters’ loves) reveal a conflicted yet humane father. He is far from immured to the troubles piled upon his people, but he is indomitable.
The final tableau gives a vision of jewish people through the ages, always on the move—with perhaps a hint of finding a home, at last, in America.
Aside from Brennan’s Tevye, act 1 belongs to Dean Nolan’s Motel: a shy and bumbling St Bernard puppy whose delight and amazement at winning the hand of Tzeitel (“Miracle of Miracles”) is a joy to behold. However, there is no weak link in this exceptional ensemble. If occasionally, the singing meanders from pitch perfect, the actor’s conviction carries us through.
Great credit to Gemma Bodinetz for teasing winning and nuanced performances from her cast, and for managing the pace of this 3-hour show (plus interval) such that we never hear the clock ticking. Incidentally, act 1 runs at 1 hour and 40 minutes. My advice is either go for interval rather than pre-show drinks, or be sure to take a ‘comfort break’ before curtain up.
George Francis directs a small and able band of musicians who play their part in rousing set pieces—the wedding scene, in particular, showcases Tom Jackson Greaves’s considerable choreographic skills, rightly and roundly acclaimed by the entire house.
Design by season designers Molly Elizabeth Lacey Davies, Michael Vale and Jocelyn Meall is excellent throughout, but watch out for the ghostly visit of Fruma-Sarah (Keddy Sutton)—spectacular.
If I’ve come this far without even mentioning “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, “If I Were a Rich Man,” or “Sunrise, Sunset”, just take that as a measure of what a very fine production this is.
Reviewer: Martin Thomasson