When I told a Jewish friend I was going to see Fiddler on the Roof, she sighed happily. “That show feeds my soul,” she said. And even this gentile can see why. Fiddler has been a stage classic since its 1964 debut. In many ways, the show is little changed by the passage of time. With a few exceptions, the costuming, staging, singing and acting are all something out of a time warp. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For those of you who, like me, weren’t aware, there is no actual fiddler in the show. Okay, there is, but he’s a metaphor for the precarious situation of the Jews living in a small village in Russia in the early 1900s. Mostly they live in peace with each other and with their gentile neighbors, but at any time, the delicate balance can shift and send them all crashing to the ground.
The story follows Tevye (John Preece, who has been performing the role for more than ten years) and his five daughters. There’s romance, drama, heartache and forgiveness, all set against a backdrop of traditional Eastern European Jewish life, where men and women can’t touch each other and men always wear fringed cloths around their waists (why? Because it’s tradition). But that tradition is running straight into modern Russia, where men and women don’t just touch, they dance together (prompting a fun moment that had me thinking of Footloose), and where Jews are becoming an endangered species. It forces us to look at the role tradition plays in our lives, how it can hamper us and hold us back from progress and love, but how also how tradition binds us together and reminds us who we are and where we’re from when the whole world flies apart. And that’s something worth remembering.
This touring production benefits from a gargauntuan cast. In a time when so many Broadway shows are being pared down to the fewest possible cast members, seeing and hearing a cast of more than 30 singers and dancers is a treat. The vocals in the group numbers hit you like a brick wall, in the best way possible. It’s the kind of singing that resonates in your chest and makes your whole body vibrate. It’s fantastic, especially in the opening number “Tradition,” and the boisterous, all-male “To Life.” But even in intimate moments, like the quiet and reflective “Sabbath Prayer” or the dreamy and tragic “Anatevka” benefit from so many voices singing in perfect harmony. The individual numbers are considerably weaker, though you’ll certainly recognize standards like “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and of course, “If I Were a Rich Man.”
The group numbers are beautiful to see and complex and stunning to hear
Unexpectedly, the dancing was also a high point in the production. This isn’t your traditional Broadway kick line–this is traditional Jewish and Russian dancing, including intricate line dances, athletic feats where men dance with glasses on their heads and that little Russian kicking dance. You know the one. It’s acrobatic and beautiful and just a delight to watch.
The lighting, both gentle effects that emulated dawn and dusk and dramatic backlighting did an excellent job of setting the mood, along with a sparse and unremarkable set. Mostly ho-hum peasant costumes were enlivened by beautiful flashes, like wedding jackets lined with bright colors.
Fiddler on the Roof doesn’t break any new ground, but maybe that’s okay. You won’t find any surprises here, but you might just find a great big bowl of matzah ball soup for the soul.
Reviewer’s tickets were provided courtesy of Broadway Across America Indianapolis. Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Murat Theatre at the Old National Centre through March 11. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit indianapolis.broadway.com.