Los Angeles Times
Latest ‘Fiddler’ tries new moves
The impressive 2015 revival, with its new choreographer, comes to the Southland.
Reviving a beloved musical can be daunting. Do you keep faith with tradition, or do you try something new? If you opt for a little of both, how much of each? It’s hard to find the balance — a bit like trying to play a fiddle on the roof.
“You might say that every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck” — so opens “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s short stories set in the 1905 Russian shtetl of Anatevka. The 1964 Broadway production won nine Tonys, and it has rarely been off a stage since. Most productions have retained Jerome Robbins’ original choreography.
In 2015, director Bartlett Sher undertook a “Fiddler” revival, daringly inviting a new choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, who had never worked on Broadway before, to update Robbins’ work. Critical reactions were mixed.
Now, the national tour of Sher’s production has arrived in L.A. for a three-week run at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. (It then moves to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa for two weeks.) On opening night, several people told me that their hearts belonged to the 1971 film or to some earlier theater production of “Fiddler.”
As someone who had never really committed to a “Fiddler,” I found this one powerfully seductive. It wasn’t the narrative framing device Sher added — two wordless moments at the beginning and end of the musical — that won me over. (Without spoiling the surprise, I will say I didn’t fully understand it at first, but I’ve since gotten it.) No, my initial attraction can be attributed largely to Yehezkel Lazarov, the Israeli film and TV star who plays Tevye, the story’s narrator and protagonist.
Tevye, the village dairyman, struggles to make ends meet. He’s a dutiful husband to his sharp-tongued wife, an attentive father to his five girls, a devout Jew fully invested in his culture’s “Tradition” (the opening number), if not completely reconciled to his poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”). Tevye talks to both the audience and his God in one-liners worthy of a Borscht Belt comedian.
One by one, Tevye’s three older daughters violate tradition by choosing their own husbands, rather than submitting to the matchmaker Yente (Carol Beaugard). After Tzeitel (Mel Weyn) is promised to 60-year-old butcher Lazar Wolf (Jonathan Von Mering), she begs Tevye to let her marry Motel the tailor (Jesse Weil) instead. Second daughter Hodel (Ruthy Froch) goes off to Siberia with a young Marxist (Ryne Nardecchia), while book-loving Chava (Natalie Powers) falls for a hunky Cossack.
Tevye struggles with these challenges to his authority, his community and his faith. The journey is heroic, and tragic. Cossacks raid Anatevka and send all its inhabitants into exile, ending its traditions forever.
Lazarov has the humorous warmth, the comic timing and the beleaguered but mischievous attitude toward his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal), familiar to “Fiddler” fans. He’s also handsome, adding heat to the wry duet about arranged marriage he sings with Golde, “Do You Love Me?” It’s almost steamy.
Shechter’s choreography shifts some of the dances from decorous and quaint to impassioned and even a little dangerous. The bottle dance at Tzeitel’s wedding is still there, though augmented with more gravity-defying moves. The choreographer has added a moment in which one dancer lets his bottle drop — maybe to remind us of how precarious putting on a musical can be.
As it happens, the struggle for balance is also a theme of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tradition and change, the past and the future, dreams and reality, love and duty, community and individuality, all exert competing forces on us. That rare moment when somebody can find a footing in this maelstrom looks like a miracle.