Tradition, tradition. Bartlett Sher’s rendition of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is the 21st-century update for a tale about tradition.
Sher’s 2015 reboot is currently on its national tour and is at the TPAC June 25-30. This classic musical brings the difficulties of facing changes to long-standing traditions to a younger audience with a story that still resonates despite moving away from its historical period.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is a musical comedy set during the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1905. The story follows a poor Jewish dairyman named Tevye (played by Yehezkel Lazarov in this production) as he confronts defiance of Jewish tradition among his three eldest daughters.
Tevye’s story begins with him, as the patriarch of his family and having the most control in his household. He immediately starts losing control when his horse suffers an injury and he is forced to pull his milk-wagon himself. The play takes us through his life as he deals with the loss of control among his family — and how his love for his family helps him overcome his ties to tradition — or almost overcome it, as Tevye says, “Some things do not change for us. Some things will never change.”
The original play was first performed on Broadway in 1964 and amass critical success it found many fans. This 2015 rendition of the 60’s hit, however, makes some noticeable changes to original Broadway hit. Some of these include turning Tevye into more of comedic relief and lessens the stage time for the younger two daughters’ stories. These changes, as well as others, had some waxing nostalgia for the original production, much like Tevye for his disappearing traditions.
This version of ‘Fiddler on the Roof is not for those that remember the original, but for a younger audience that is growing to love for theater. This trend of attracting a younger audience in a post-Hamilton theater world is not lost on the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The next few TPAC shows include a dance show set to the music of 2017 cinematic musical The Greatest Showman, as well as modern musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical. TPAC also has a new lottery system that allows people to win the chance to buy tickets to sought-after performances. Much like actual Broadway ticket lotteries, TPAC’s Concierge app lets anyone enter a drawing to win the chance to buy cheap tickets to shows, increasing the accessibility to reach theater patrons of a younger age.
The importance of entertaining a younger audience is at the soul of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Despite its serious subject matter and somber setting, the play is bursting with quippy one-liners and physical humor. Every character is dialed up and exaggerated even more so than a typical theater production, especially Motel (Jesse Weil). Motel typically a nervous, poor tailor who is too afraid to confront Tevye about marrying his daughter Tzeitel (Mel Weyn). In this version, however, Motel’s mousy demeanor is stretched to the point where he practically flinches whenever anyone looks at him.
While some characters pop out, some fall flat. Such is the case of Lazar Wolf (Jonathan Von Mering), the wealthy Jewish butcher who Tzeitel is initially destined to wed. In the original run, Lazar is a sympathetic old man who just wants another wife, in a way he’s a character you should feel bad for. Sher’s version of the old butcher, however, turns him into an emotionless creep who seems disconnected from the rest of the village. It’s hard to sympathize with a man who seems to just want to marry Tzeitel to have a woman around.
There is a heavy focus on Tzeitel and Motel’s relationship in the second act, but it speeds through Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Perchik’s (Ryne Nardecchia) relationship. Even more so through Chava (Natalie Powers) and Fyedka’s (Joshua Logan Alexander) relationship), the play offers a magical glimpse into the town of Anatevka. Despite the play rushing to get through the material of the second act, the set design by Michael Yeargan captures the beauty of not only the original play, but even scenes from the 1971 film. The well outside Tevye’s house looked like it was lifted from the set of the movie, and the floating town in the background of the pub is a wonderful referent to the original set design.
While Sher did a wonderful job updating the play to a modern context, a part of me wonders whether a newer play about tradition would be more approachable to a younger audience. After viewing the show, I had to explain to my girlfriend that the play was set during the Russian Revolution, an event she knew little about. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is set in 1905, which is 59 years before the play debuted. Now in 2019, it has been 55 years since the play has debuted. Perhaps a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ set in the ’60s would be more approachable for today’s audience.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is an endearing play with a story that fits any generation as traditions are constantly being challenged and overturned. Bartlett Sher’s rendition does a fantastic job at presenting the story of confronting tradition to new theatergoers, but one must wonder whether ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is still the best musical to do that, or if it has become a tradition in itself.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ will be at TPAC June 25-30 with shows at 8 every night except Sunday, a matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m .and Sunday at 1 p.m., and a final showing on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at https://cart.tpac.org/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=8511.