The World is Changing: Some Musical Traditions Live On

harvey fierstein
It seems as though it has been ages since I have seen a professional production of a classic of the American Musical Theatre. Toronto, I think, has become particularly enraptured with all that is contemporary in the last few years, and while, of course, I consider the development and the dissemination of new work to be incredibly important, it is really nice every once and awhile to be given the opportunity to curl up with something teeming with tradition. That’s how I felt while watching the National Touring Company’s production of Fiddler on the Roof yesterday afternoon produced by Mirvish Productions and playing at the Canon Theatre until January 10th, 2010.
Fiddler on the Roof (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein) opened on Broadway in 1964; it remains Broadway’s fourteenth longest running show in history, won nine Tony Awards and is widely considered one of the pivotal productions whose innovation and success influenced the evolution of the American musical theatre. The musical is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living in a small shtetl (Anatevka) in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution. Tevye has five daughters and as his three eldest reach marrying age, he must contend with their increasing desire for independence and their changing values, as each one moves farther away from the Jewish customs, faith and traditions in which their father has rooted his life. The play ends with an edict which forces the Jews out of their villages, an action which prompts Tevye to flee with his two youngest daughters to America. As Tevye pulls a cart full of belongings toward his new life, the curtain falls and the audience is left to imagine the stark changes in tradition awaiting the family in the New World, and also hope for the future in the knowledge that these immigrants will forge a rich cultural history in young cities like New York which would lead to the establishment of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley and eventually Broadway itself.
Bock and Harnick’s music is beautifully lyrical and sweet and captures both the jaunty flavor of traditional Russian folk music and the wistful, yearnings of a people leaving their homes. The book is filled with wholesome charm and the gentle wit of a time gone by. The show is given a sharp boost of energy in the dancing, recreated from its original (and signature) Jerome Robbins choreography by director Sammy Dallas Bayes, which this company masters to perfection (especially the hilarious Dream Sequence and the always mesmerizing Bottle/Wedding Dance) The heart of this show still resonates strongly with contemporary audiences, which I think is what makes it such a timeless piece of theatre.
Rena Strober, Jamie Davis and Deborah Grausman are delightful as Tevye’s eldest daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava respectively; they capture a lovely sisterly chemistry with one another and all have pleasant voices. Davis has the most beautiful moment in the show with her “Far From the Home I Love,” which is smooth and sweet as honey. Susan Cella has a nice balance of domineering and exhausted as Tevye’s wife, Golde, with a nice sense of comic timing. I was expecting Golde to have a bit more brash and acrid bite, but Cella’s interpretation seems much more realistic of a mother consumed with the drudgery of raising five children. Erik Liberman (Motel) and Colby Foytik (Perchik) sing well, and despite the fact that neither shows off a particularly outstanding voice, both convey beautifully the emotions of their characters consistently throughout the show.
I have heard some debate about the choice of casting Harvey Fierstein to replace Chaim Topol after the Israeli actor, who starred in the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof, dropped out of the tour in Boston after suffering a debilitating shoulder injury. Some people have strong reactions to Harvey Fierstein’s unique voice, which is not the same as that of Chaim Topol or Theodore Bikel, but with four Tony Awards under his belt, including one for Best Leading Actor in a Musical (for his role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray) I believe that Fierstein proves within the first few moments of this production that he is more than qualified to play the role of Tevye. After all, singing in musical theatre is not about singing pretty, it is about creating a character and I think that Fierstein’s voice suits Tevye, a poor Russian milkman, perfectly: warm in the centre, a bit raspy and rough around the edges. Fierstein’s true gift to this production is, of course, his brilliant comic sensibilities (and there is plenty of shtick for Fierstein fans to delight in) and the charm and ease with which his Tevye speaks both to the audience and with God, inviting both warmly into his house. At the same time, there are moments which are pure, earnest, emotion and Fierstein is equally poignant in expressing his love for his daughters and his torment over the breaking of his family’s traditions. His “Chava Sequence” near the end of the play is utterly heartbreaking. In Fierstein we see the true essence of Tevye.
Despite its strong political undertones, the construction of Fiddler on the Roof harkens back to a simpler time where, amid suffering in silence, there is an entire shtetl filled with people who care for one another and work for the good of their home and who find the joys even in God’s smallest graces worthy of song, dance and praise. It is hearty for the soul to immerse yourself in such a world, if only for three hours. La Kayim!

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Canon Theatre (263 Yonge Street/ Box Office: 244 Victoria Street) for tickets or more information please call 416.872.1212 or visit http://www.mirvish.com/.

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