When “Fiddler on the Roof” opened on Broadway in September of 1964, no one could have imagined the universal appeal and endurance the show would have. There have been thousands of productions of “Fiddler” based on the work of Sholem Aleichem, with book by Joseph Stein. The music of Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick have become part of our culture. “Sunrise, Sunset” has been sung at millions of weddings; “Do You Love Me?” is an anniversary standard; and “To Life” is danced at almost all joyous occasions.
‘Fiddler’ and Olney are a ‘perfect match’ and a wonderful holiday treat.
Although the characters are Jewish and in tsarist Russia in the early 20th century, the plight of minorities and the hardship facing immigrants spans the generations. The story centers around Tevye (Haward Kaye) who is an Everyman. He loves his family, enjoys his friends, is a part of his community, and has a close relationship with his God. Those bonds are strained during the course of the show when Tevye has to make hard decisions. He starts to question his beliefs and even his faith. It is joyous, at times, and poignant at others. All the characters are so vivid and carefully drawn that, even after decades, they remain real and fresh to audiences.
Directed by Peter Flynn, this production takes a different turn than the original staging. The stage lights come on to reveal a look at Ellis Island, the stopping point of many White European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of us who are the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of those fleeing from poverty, war, and intolerance, can trance their families to Ellis Island. Flynn’s conception of “Fiddler” makes the point that we are a country of immigrants and all of us should be able to empathize with the plight of the people of Anatevka.
I have seen “Fiddler on the Roof” many times, including on Broadway with Zero Mostel in a revival. This is a new viewpoint and more inclusive than the original. The class is multi-ethnic. Slowly the asylum seekers enter taking seats and numbers while officials watch on. Finally, Tevye and his wife, Golde (Rachel Stern), enter with two of their daughters. Tevye has a scrapbook which he shows to some of the other immigrants. It is the story of his village, Anatevka, located in what today is Ukraine. It is also the story of his family’s travails. Slowly the others take on the roles of his other daughters and many of the villagers. The officials become the Cossacks, often local police working in conjunction with the tsarist military. Three young women become Tevya’s three eldest daughters—Tzeitel (Sophia Schulman), Hodel (Sumié Yotsukura), and Chava (Ariana Caldwell) who are now of the age to be married. In their community, marriages were arranged and the three actors do a fine rendition of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” From that point on, we stay in Anatevka until we, too, are forced to leave as were the Jewish communities in many villages in Russia at that time. The play ends, again back on Ellis Island, as the “tired and poor” slowly depart for their new life.
The success of this show is dependent on the actor who plays Tevye who is in almost every scene. Kaye makes a strapping figure and his voice captures the plight of this dairyman. He carries off “Tradition” with gusto as we go from the immigration site to the village. Stern is a warm and strong wife and mama as Golde. “Do You Love Me?” remains the sweet and surprisingly moving song as it has always been. Michael Wood is a standout as Motel, the young tailor in love with Tzeitel. He brought new zest to “Miracle of Miracles.” Noah Keyishian as Perchik, the university student from Kiev, gives a strong opening for the second act in his duo with Hodel (Yotsukura), “Now That I Have Everything.”
Milagros Ponce de León’s set matches Flynn’s concept. In the bleakness of Ellis Island and the shtetl, we try to imagine how any of these people were able to find happiness, but we, like the characters, never lose hope. Max Doolittle’s lighting design and Matt Rowe’s sound design blend perfectly with the set and the music under the artful direction of Christopher Youstra. Lorna Ventura’s choreography fits perfectly on Olney’s stage. The Bottle Dance, done in a wedding scene, is very difficult but done flawlessly. Pei Lee’s costume design conveys the poverty but still adds color to the bleak settings.
“Fiddler” and Olney are a “perfect match” and a wonderful holiday treat.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs through December 31, 2023 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney MD 20852. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.