REVIEW: Arena Stage revives another legendary musical.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is one of those great Broadway, blockbuster musicals that deserves to be revived as Molly Smith has done in recent years with other legendary musicals at Arena Stage. Now 50 years old, it comes from the golden age of big, ambitious Broadway musicals, and while there may be the usual, “why is she reviving that ‘old chestnut’” criticism, Smith knows that these American classics are important — the audience loves them and they make money.
Smith has done most of the right things in directing Fiddler, especially with the staging in Arena’s Fichandler Theatre. The large cast she has assembled has strong voices performing Sheldon Harnick’s intelligent, provocative lyrics set to Jerry Bock’s beautiful music. It is a show filled with such memorable songs as, “Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and the haunting, “Do You Love Me?”.
Written for the stage by Joseph Stein from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler is the poignant tale of Tevye, a poor milkman in a European shtetl in the early years of the 20th century. He is a proud, respected man with five daughters who strongly adheres to the often-stifling traditions of his time. Those traditions are his dependable constants, but he is unaware that his long-held traditions are unraveling. He wants his daughters to marry men who are rich or are good providers and he is the one who will decide who that will be. Unfortunately for Tevye, his daughters are becoming confusingly modern and will violate those dependable traditions by wanting to marry for love.
The role of Tevye is complicated. The entire musical is based on this wise, hardworking man. Jonathan Hadary is a deservedly admired veteran actor with a strong enough singing voice, but under Smith’s direction, he gives a muted performance that doesn’t portray the complex exuberance of this perplexed man. Because of that, you don’t feel Tevye’s joy to any depth or fully see his pain. You still sympathize with him and feel his confusion and growing self-doubt, but you don’t get the impression that this is a man who will survive no matter what calamity God springs on him.
Tevye makes a good marriage agreement for his oldest daughter with Lazor Wolf (Eric Devine), a successful, widowed wealthy man who is much older but a good, gentle provider. His daughter Tzeitel (Dorea Schmidt), has instead promised to marry an impoverished tailor. Tevye loves his daughters so he painfully accepts her choice and defies tradition by breaking his honorable marriage agreement with Wolf. The second daughter falls in love with and marries a political activist from Kiev whom Tevye has accepted into his home as an act of charity. She eventually goes to live with him in Siberia where he has been exiled for his political activities.
The most unforgiving act is when the third daughter, a bookish woman, falls in love with a Christian. This is too much even for Tevye’s fatherly love and he declares her dead to him. There is a limit, and in this marriage, Tevye has reached it. He may have had his doubts, but he never loses his faith; it is still what sustains him.
It all culminates in a hard time of pogroms; and then the Tzar’s decree comes down expelling all the Jews from their tiny village of Anatevka where they had lived all their lives and expected future generations to live there after them. As they leave for America, Tevye, his wife Golde (Ann Arvia) and their two youngest daughters face the tragic reality that their diaspora means they will never again be together. They and the villagers, who are leaving everything with no hope of returning, sing a sad lament to their shtetl, Anatevka.
Anything performed in the round is complicated with the distraction of the audience, which is always visible, and the limitations of a set that must project to the four sections of the theater. Designer Todd Rosenthal’s minimalist look projects an understanding of hard life in the tiny village and of Tevye who survives the threats to his faith and traditions. He is beaten down but not destroyed.
“Fiddler on the Roof” continues through January 4, 2015 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets are $50-$99 and available 202-488-3300 and online here.