By Patrick O’Brien
To discuss Fiddler on the Roof, one must first talk about the descriptor “universal.”
It’s certainly apt for this beloved musical, to be sure. Name a single culture that has not in any way been influenced by internal or external forces to either adapt or shed their traditions, or perish. Impossible.
There’s even a classic anecdote from Fiddler’s book writer Joseph Stein that on the occasion of the musical’s Japanese premiere, he was asked how he and his fellow American collaborators Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick were able to write such a Japanese musical.
However, it’s also said the more deeply specific a work is, the more universal it becomes. And Fiddler on the Roof is specifically Jewish. Its beleaguered sense of humor is Jewish. Its tonalities — swerving between major and minor modes within the same breath — are Jewish. By extension, its hurdling between exultant highs and crushing lows is Jewish. Judaism is so steeped into the piece that even substandard productions can’t obliterate it.
Thankfully, though, director Bartlett Sher’s touring production is top-flight and respectful of its specificity, and its touring stop via Broadway in Chicago is more than welcome, and should prove a welcome respite for the company after being beleaguered in its own chilling ways.
It’s a show that travels lightly — designers Michael Yeargan (sets) and Donald Holder (lights) keep things spare, sometimes with little more than a chair, a withering tree, and a pink wash to put us in the little shtetl of Anatevka, where life is ordered from sunrise to sunset by traditions big and small. (Building on Jerome Robbins’s iconic dances, Hofesh Shechter brings both grace and zest to the villagers’ customs.)
It then takes a tremendous actor to fill the stage as the lowly but orderly dairyman Tevye, and Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov is just the man to guide us through the topsy-turviness that will turn his life — and all of Anatevka — upside down. He passes the litmus test for the role, “If I Were a Rich Man,” with booming voice and infectious joy.
He also passes each turning point — the marriages of his three eligible daughters — with convincing and ever-deepening heartbreak. The first, Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), is married to a man far beneath the station of the man to whom she was intended. The second, Hodel (Ruthy Froch), marries a revolutionary in the midst of political turmoil, and without Tevye’s knowing their courtship. The third, Chava (Natalie Powers), marries outside the faith, perhaps the deepest cut of all.
Or maybe the deepest cut is being introduced to the concept of unprompted love in the first place. “Do You Love Me,” Tevye’s Act Two question to his wife Golde (Maite Uzal), always gets a laugh out of her response — “Do I what?” — but here, Sher’s calling card for lining classic musicals with realism comes through. The pair quietly come to realize that a quarter century’s-worth of mutual respect may just be that little four-letter word that has driven their daughters crazy.
It is that four-letter word that will keep them going following the closing curtain, when Anatevka receives an unsympathetic referendum from the czar on high. Without revealing Sher’s deft new framing for the musical, everything comes full circle. Tevye, Golde, and the rest will leave, they will settle, they will live, they will love, and then they will leave, live and love again.
The leaving is Jewish. The living and loving are universal.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Fiddler on the Roof” through January 6, 2019 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph StPreet, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.