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Fiddler, balancing on the roof - tiles of tradition and change | Village Theater review
“No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living - even if it kills you.” So wrote humorist Sholom Aleichem, author of “Tevye, the dairy man” and other Yiddish tales, upon which the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof was based.
In their spirited local production of Fiddler, the Issaquah-based Village Theater brings to life the hard-knock times of Tevye, this Russian peasant who inspired Broadway songwriter Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick almost 50 years ago. It’s being performed in Everett at the Everett Performing Arts Center, from now through Jan. 27.
Tevye is a humble laborer in a Jewish shtetl (village) in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the last century, who yearns for a better life and fantasizes the riches he could have in contrast to his life of poverty and misery. “Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck,” laughs Tevye, the narrator of the tale.
For those who haven’t seen the show, performed by touring companies in Seattle, (or the acclaimed 1971 movie starring Chaim Topol), this new revival captures all the drama and depth of the original. Fiddler has been a “consistent top pick” to be performed by Village Theater, according to company director David Ira Goldstein, because it is a classic with such universal appeal. And it may have special resonance now in this time of economic hardship, foreclosures and political turbulence.
The music tells the tale of the simple, poor dairyman Tevye, lugging a milk cart, (well-played by Village Theater regular Eric Polanyi Jensen), and his wife Golde, (played by Bobbi Kotula), another Village Theater regular, and their five daughters, who are all struggling to stay sane under the persecution of the Tsarist regime and the threat of imminent revolution.
The more light-hearted plot line is that Tevye is trying to marry off three of his daughters, preferably to men of some means, given the family’s current difficult financial circumstances. Tevye and his wife are trying to cling to old religious traditions, as their daughters defy them, wanting to marry for love instead of succumbing to the practical custom of having their marriages arranged by a matchmaker.
Even if Jewish comedy is not his usual shtik, lead actor Eric Polanyi Jensen embodies the warm, wry humor and deep life struggles of the iconic hero Tevye.
The daughters, who are all feisty and independent, are excellently enacted, as Tzeitel, the eldest (Jennifer Weingarten), who wants to marry the poor tailor instead of the rich butcher, Hodel, (Emily Cawley) who wants to marry the Bolshevik, and Chava (Mara Solar), who falls in love with a non-Jew.
As the story progresses, Tevye will not just be concerned that his daughters are falling in love with poor men but that they are, like his daughter Chava, falling out of their faith. In one of his frequent dialogs with God and his conscience, for example, Tevye reflects on the choices, and facets, of his struggle, like the sides of a precarious roof.
“Accept them?” How can I accept them?” Tevye cries. On the one hand, he ponders, “can I deny my own child?” On the other, “how can I turn my back on my faith, my people. If I try to bend that far, I will break. On the other hand, there is no other hand.”
But a deeper message of the musical is relying on tradition and faith in times of change and turbulence. “Without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof,” says Tevye.
Jensen brings his own gentle edge to the role, managing to avoid the cliché that this character has sometimes veered into, as Fiddler has become one of the most popular choices for high school and community theater productions of all time. Other actors in the production, too, like the daughters, are less concerned with adhering to Yiddish accents than the motivations of their roles.
Aleichem, once dubbed the Jewish Mark Twain, when he travelled to the United States, is far less famous than the Fiddler he inspired. His simple tale of hardship and persecution in Tsarist Russia has been performed over and over again in every type of setting from stage plays to dinner theater, but, despite its familiarity, continues to have appeal and relevance since it opened in 1964.
Ironically, when it first opened, the musical was criticized for its “limited appeal,” because it dealt with big and difficult issues like poverty, persecution and the struggle to hold on to one’s faith in the midst of change. Then it surprised the theater world by becoming, for a time, the longest-running show in Broadway history.
The symbol and image of the “fiddler on the roof,” originated in the stories of Aleichem.
To him, the fiddler plays a tune that is “a scream from the depths of the heart, the soul.”
Aleichem, (whose pen name means “Peace be unto you,” or more colloquially, “How are you?”) was born Solomon Naumovich Ravinovich, a noted author and playwright. He was known for aphorisms like, “The soul is born old but grows young. That is the comedy of life. And the body is born young and grows old. That is life’s tragedy.”
But painter Marc Chagall, a contemporary of Aleichem, pictured fiddlers too, in paintings like “I and the Village” and “The Green Fiddler.” Some of the best pleasures of this production are the brightly-colored set by scenic designer Bill Forrester and Julia Franz, master scenic artist, which frames the stage with Chagall’s images.
Much like the brilliant designs of the original Broadway set designer Boris Aronson, their set designs achieve a dreamy, dramatic contrast between drab, grey reality of the villagers’ clapboard houses and peasant clothes — and the rich color of their spiritual lives.
Fiddler on the Roof may be especially relevant in our area, in a place settled by so many relatively recent immigrants, where parents and children may very well conflict over old ways and traditions. One could easily imagine Tevye as an east Indian father of a Microsoft software marketer or the Vietnamese father of a Boeing engineer, as their own children forsake ancient traditions and customs.
And since it is New Years’ month, and just before Asian New Year’s celebrations, this is an apt season for pondering these deeper questions about our place as individuals in relation to the traditions honored by the families from which we all come.
Fiddler on the Roof runs now through Jan. 27 in Everett. Details at www.villagetheatre.org or 425-392-2202.
Francesca Lyman is a journalist living in Kirkland.