By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the opening moments of the grand touring production of Fiddler on the Roof that’s arrived at the Jube, a solitary man in a modern red parka walks onto the stage under a weathered train station sign. Anatevka.
He reads from a book. “Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy….” He sheds the parka and a century or more, puts on a cap and a prayer shaw, and sings Tradition.
There he is, Tevye, in the wonderfully comic and soulful performance by Jonathan Hashmonay the loveable beleaguered Jewish dairyman of the classic musical, in a Russian shtetl in the early 20th century. A fiddler right out of a Marc Chagall painting (Ali Marian Molaei) dances by him and the villagers appear from the mists of time behind him.
And in the memorable contemporary framing of Bartlett Sher’s 2015 revival, Tevye returns us to the brute realities of the contemporary world at the end. In a moving final image, again in the red parka, he joins the long line of history and its endless waves of refugees, as the people of Anatevka are forcibly uprooted from their home, fleeing violence to face the dangers of the unknown. This is a revival of the great 1964 Jerry Bock/ Sheldon Harnick musical that really hits your heart with its sense of timelessness.
Before that, in a performance that’s zestful, funny, and anguished, we see Hashmonay in his serial arguments with the Almighty. “I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honour either! So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?” as he sings in If I Were A Rich Man. Gazing skeptically heavenward, he shakes his fist, he shrugs ruefully, he captures the Catskills cadence of Tevye as he kibbutzes with himself, weighing the pros and cons of tradition and change.
In a household with five daughters with ideas of their own and a forceful, harried wife (Maite Uzal in an impressive performance as Golde), Tevye is up against it. Even his horse won’t cooperate. And Hashmonay gives full weight to both comedy and tragedy, and the ambivalence of a man torn between the old ways and the new.
The music, with its lush, klezmer flavours, comes at you in a lyrical rush in the production, both in intimate moments and ensemble scenes. Kudos to the choreography, re-thought from the Jerome Robbins original by the Israeli-born London-based Hofesh Shechter. It’s visceral in a contemporary but idiomatic way. The wedding scene, and its thrilling bottle-on-the-head dance is a highlight. So is the choreographic dynamic of the tavern scene in which the Jewish dancing is counterposed to dance from the outsider Russians. Tevye himself is in constant motion. The movement never seems forced, or thought out; it seems to erupt as a chaos, an amplitude, of human energy.
The momentum of the story, which accumulates in the three-hour evening, comes from the three oldest daughters who prove resistant to the demands of tradition as they find their own way in love and into marriage. Randa Meierhenry, GraceAnn Kontak and Yardén Barr as Tzeitel, Hodel and the bookish Chava have great charm and sisterly chemistry. And their shared song Matchmaker Matchmaker, as they dream of romantic happiness, is a knockout. So is Hodel’s delivery of Far From The Home I Love, a heartbreaking lament of displacement.
None of the three men the girls fall for would be a papa’s choice. The rabbity tailor Motel (the terrific Daniel Kushner), the radical student Perchik (Austin J Gresham), and the completely unthinkable, a gentile Russian (Carson Robinette) — all are a test of Tevye’s traditional paternal authority. The ecstatic song in which Motel discovers a new manly resolve and wins the girl of his dreams, Miracle of Miracles, is a delight. “But like he did so long ago, in Jericho, God just made a wall fall down!”
GraceAnn Kontak’s The moment that Levy’s heart is broken by Chava, the daughter who finds love outside the faith, has a palpable force to it, as he physically draws the curtain across a vision of his little girl dancing. His signature inner dialectic, “on the one hand … on the other hand,” has run out of hands. Interestingly, the character with the least impact on proceedings in the rabbi (Christopher Hager).
The textures of family and village life, the warmth and the harshness of it all, and the constant threat of Czarist authority, are beautifully captured in the production — in its theatricality and stagecraft, its design, and the weave of performances in a large cast. Sometimes the characters are in silhouette, sometimes in 3-D. The dream that Tevye imagines in order to convince his wife to accept Motel as a potential son-in-law is a bold pageant of masked grotesques and stiltwalkers.
Michael Yearn’s ingenious design, with lighting by Daniel Holder, uses screens and set pieces. And then, in a folk tale sort of perspective, the village, seen in miniature floats in the air, like the fiddler on the roof.
At this moment in human history, when anti-Semitism is on the rise, and life and whole communities can be displaced at the whim of tyrants, Fiddler on the Roof seems newly relevant. Maybe that’s true in every age. The cast dedicates their curtain call dance and song to the people of Ukraine, whose lives have been ruthlessly upended. The footing of our lives up on the roof remains precarious.
Fiddler on the Roof
Created by: Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick from stories by Sholem Aleichem
Directed by: Bartlett Sher (reproduced for touring by Sari Ketter)
Starring: Jonathan Hashmonay, Maite Uzal
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: through Sunday