‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Cadillac Palace is a revelatory classic re-envisionedDecember 21, 2018
When director Bartlett Sher’s simultaneously revelatory and deeply familiar “Fiddler on the Roof” opens, the first thing you’ll see is a man in a red hooded zipper jacket at a deserted train station.
The relentless rhythm of clacking train wheels echo in the distance. For a long moment, the man gazes up at a faded, Russian sign. It’s a disconcerting moment because, like the man, we’re not sure where — or when — we are.
And then this modern-day man begins reading from a book. The coat vanishes. The man becomes Tevye, the dairyman of 1905 Anatevka, Russia. “Tradition” takes hold.
It takes only an instant to move from a deserted train station in the present day to a village in Tsarist Russia. As composer Jerry Bock’s mantra-like opening song and Sheldon Harnick’s indelible lyrics take hold, the stage explodes with activity. As Anatevka’s Jewish fathers, daughters, sons and daughters celebrate their heritage, a pop of royal purple stands out amid their dun-colored peasant clothes. It’s the Fiddler, very much in their world but somehow not quite of it.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’
When: Through Jan. 6
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Sher and music supervisor Ted Sperling capture the full genius of the number.
“Tradition” veers with seamless grace between jubilant major keys and mournful minor keys. The former reflects Tevye’s (Yehezkel Lazarov) affirmation of his religion and culture as he practices it daily. The latter is a remembrance of the ancestors who created it millennia before he arrived. Lazarov’s baritone, booming and melodic, is the sound of present joy embedded with ancient wisdom.
And Sher and his robust cast are just getting started with “Tradition.” Despite its age (“Fiddler” debuted on Broadway in 1964) and early 20th century setting, this is a no period piece or warhorse revival. As he did with “South Pacific,” Sher has re-envisioned a classic.
The man in the red coat is an inspired part of that vision. When he appears again in the final moments, something beautiful and surprising unfolds. There’s nothing rococo or heavy-handed about it — fingers lightly gripping a shoulder, a back bent to a wheelbarrow, a determined shuffle of feet. But these small, seemingly ordinary moments contain worlds, and they link time immemorial to right now.
Trains play an eerie role in Sher’s staging. You’ll remember the sound of the distant wheels from that opening scene when the Jews of Anatevka learn they are being evicted from their village. As they huddle together, Michael Yeargan’s set becomes a floor-to-ceiling construct of windowless wooden slats. All the visual cues read boxcar: light filtering through the slats, armed men at the only exit, Jews wondering what’s to become of them.
Sher’s final scene is sobering and a show of strength, intensified by the history that surrounds the story both before and after it unfolds: There a sense of the indomitable in Anatevka’s newly displaced Jews. They’ve been through this before. They’ll go through it again. They might not all survive. But they will not be extinguished.
For all the pogroms and poverty of 1905 Russia and the horrors we know will follow in the coming decades, “Fiddler” is filled with joy and humor and vivacity. Poverty is no match for the exultant happiness that radiates from Tevye and his fellow villagers when they have something to celebrate. The score and the choreography (created for Sher’s Broadway revival by Hofesh Shechter, recreated for the tour by Christopher Evans and wholly inspired by Jerome Robbins’ original) create a sense of vitality as shining as Times Square.
Robbins’ classic bottle dance at Tzeitel (Mel Weyn) and Motel’s (Jesse Weil) wedding celebration is legendary (it even showed up in the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). The recreation here is thrilling. Just as stunning is the wedding ceremony itself, which captures the solemnity of the occasion and the excitement of the bride and groom.
Bock’s score is as memorable as that bottle dance. “Matchmaker,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man” long ago passed from familiar to iconic. That leaves them at risk of becoming stale or worse, unwitting parodies of themselves. But that never happens.
When Ruthy Froch (Hodel), Natalie Powers (Chava) and Weyn go into “Matchmaker,” the harmonies fill the air like bursts of flowers. Maite Uzal gives Golde’s alto a deep, golden timbre in “Sabbath Prayer.” When the ensemble comes together on “Anatevka” and “To Life,” the harmonies come in waves so seamless that hearing them feels like floating.
At 54, “Fiddler” is not showing its age. It is like its characters: resilient, thoughtful, celebratory, enduring.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.