It is a sad indictment of how much we still have to learn, when troubles from the turn of the twentieth century depicted in Fiddler on the Roof are still being confronted to-day. As highlighted in the thoughtful notes scattered throughout the printed program, intolerant regimes and the plight of refugees are far too topical for any of us to feel complacent about any apparent progress by human society over the past century.
The musical, set in the Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, is based on a short story by a Russian Jewish author under the pen name of Sholom Aleichem; the experiences of the Jewish population of that village mirror his experiences. He too was forced to flee Russia, and escaped the 1905 pogroms by emigrating to the USA. His story was later developed into a play and in 1964 formed the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. The serious issues dealt with in this musical successfully broke new ground for Broadway musicals of that era. And the current production, directed by Paul Collings at the Schonell Theatre, also deserves a very successful run.
The central character of this musical is not the fiddler, but Tevye, the dairyman, given a well-rounded performance by Neville Hillier. The fiddler (Harmony Lentz) serves, in fact, as Tevye’s metaphor for survival in insecure situations, such as that of the Jews in his village, in Russia, and just about everywhere at that time. Tevye is in a perennial state of conflict and dialogue with God, as he juggles traditional values and the changing times being embodied by his daughters, while living on the breadline. These struggles give rise to some of the best known songs from the show, such as ‘Fiddler on the roof’, ‘Tradition’, and ‘If I were a rich man’.
Hillier is one of the few performers who gives his role the requisite Jewish character. And perhaps, with the large cast that fills this musical, it was decided to be satisfied with the look, without necessarily going all the way with the voices. This results in a break with the convention of stage and movie versions I have seen of ensuring that the actors give a Jewish intonation to their speech; and that side of things ends up being a bit of a hit and miss affair that you get used to after a while. On the other hand, everyone was dressed very appropriately for their parts, with a lot of attention to detail by costumiers Julie Leaver and Elizabeth Giddings.
And there is, in every way, a clear distinction between the Jewish villagers and the Russian bovver boys, who start off with a manner that is genial enough and end up by being very scary indeed, with a particularly vicious fight scene effectively orchestrated by Jason King and Steven Galley. This is only one of several scenes involving most or all of the cast, in remarkably well co-ordinated sequences, many of them complex musical numbers under the musical direction of Rodney Wolff and choreographed by Sue Forster-Crilly, who also makes a good fist of Golde, Tevye’s wife.
Against the backdrop of a sombre theme and ominous intimations, there is plenty of humour and charm throughout the show. June Balfour, who has peppered her speech with an oddly disconcerting lilt, gets some of the loudest laughs as Yente, the busybody matchmaker who can rationalise her way out of the most ludicrous of mismatches. The love affairs that develop between Tevye’s older daughters (Therese Halpin, Sarah Punch and Brianna Carpenter) and increasingly problematical suitors (for Tevye’s traditional tastes) are touching, and include a spirited duet between Halpin as oldest daughter Tzeitel and James Caldwell as the impoverished tailor, Motel. A later duet between second daughter Hodel and her student/activist, Perchik (Ben Fotheringham), is enhanced by the delightful singing voice of Sarah Punch. A special mention, also, should be made of the stalwart performances of the two youngest members of the cast, two young boys who kept up with the best of them, and had their own moment in the sun as the matchmaker’s wildcard fiancées for Tevye’s youngest daughters.
Apart from the slightly rickety interior of Tevye’s home, Leo Bradley has designed sets that work well in showing various dimensions of the humble village without crowding the actors, who are also well served by their invisible accompanists, in the substantial orchestra conducted by Chris Andrews.
Essentially, this is a show where the whole is very definitely greater than the sum of its parts. So, while it is possible to quibble at some aspects of the production, overall I found it to be a powerful and moving theatrical experience. And while I don’t know how many dry eyes there were in the house by the end, I can report that mine certainly weren’t.