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Anthony Chase: Timeless 'Fiddler on the Roof' is worth a return visit

"Fiddler on the Roof" is a perfect musical. The story of Tevye, a Jewish milkman living with his wife, Golde and their five daughters in the tiny Russian town of Anatevka, is as engaging as it is timeless. The characters are vivid and real. The show’s exquisite songs by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock are beautifully integrated into Joseph Stein’s perfectly structured book.

Director Bartlett Sher’s staging for the Broadway production, now on tour and playing at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, has been praised for his use of a framing device that reminds us of the play’s larger themes. As the show begins, a contemporary man, wearing a red parka, is reading from a guidebook. He stands in an abandoned town, perhaps, looking for the birthplace of his ancestors. He finds nothing. He then unzips his coat, and steps forward, revealing the iconic Tevye costume. We are transported back to Czarist Russia, and the people of Anatevka burst onto the stage to sing the show’s rousing opening number, “Tradition.”

Through this device, we are reminded that the Anatevka story is the story of most of our ancestors. Whether they came from Russia, Ireland, Venezuela or Yemen, chances are that at one time, they traveled far and endured hardships to become strangers in a strange new place called America. We owe everything we are to the sacrifices they made and the risks they took.

That reminder is especially meaningful during a week when the nation has witnessed the horrific massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Sadly, I recall seeing Topol play Tevye on the Shea’s stage on a November night back in 1995 -- on the very day that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. The theme of intolerance and man’s inhumanity to man is woefully timeless.

While this background gives the production a sobering context, "Fiddler" rises above the cares of the world to provide a delightful visit with a simple yet playfully wise milkman as he navigates the complications surrounding the marriages of his three oldest daughters. As those complications become increasingly difficult, the stakes of "Fiddler on the Roof" become more and more serious, leading us toward the notable somber conclusion.

Yehezkel Lazarov is marvelous as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The success of any production of "Fiddler" rests largely on the shoulders of the actor who plays Tevye. I have seen many play the role memorably: Herschel Bernardi, Topol, Brent Carver, Theodore Bikel and Saul Elkin. Yehezkel Lazarov, who plays the role at Shea’s, is marvelous.

The strength of Lazarov’s performance is in his talent for blending the humor of the man with the dignity of his struggles. The Israeli actor has an uncommon talent for gentle clowning. He also demonstrates impressive agility as his Tevye convincingly switches into brooding mode. His one-way conversations with God are especially enjoyable, and his renditions of Tevye’s numbers are fresh and original.

Not all of the secondary roles are played equally effectively, but I am happy to single out Buffalo native Olivia Gjurich for her performance as the ghost of Fruma-Sarah.

The actors playing the three marriageable daughters are also highly satisfying: Mel Weyn as Tzeitel, Ruthy Froch as Hodel and Natalie Powers as Chava. This production gives these characters particularly pronounced individuality, assisted by Catherine Zuber’s costumes. Their rendition of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” typically done as a charm song, here effectively presages everything that is to follow. Love will motivate all of the plot’s complications, and determine the direction of each person’s life. At this point, the sisters cannot know that greater threats await them.

I also found the actors playing the love interests to be excellent: Jesse Weil as Motel, the tailor who marries Tzeitel; Ryne Nardecchia as Perchik, the revolutionary student who falls in love with Hodel; and Joshua Logan Alexander as Fyedka, the Russian soldier who is smitten with bookish Chava. (To satisfy the curiosity of any fellow theater nerds, Alexander, while excellent, is no relation to the legendary Broadway director, Joshua Logan – I asked). Each of these men has a challenging path to trod. Weil does handsomely as the meek but determined tailor who learns strength through love. Nardecchia gives us a brash and fearless Perchik who is rendered vulnerable by love. Alexander’s dashing Fyedka learns compassion through love.

The Fyedka-Chava story plays especially powerfully this week. As is so often true, petty differences between enemies can be overcome at the level of individual people, but too often, governments make that impossible.

This is a smart and beautifully staged production, certainly worth a return visit to this enduring material, and Yehezkel Lazarov steps forward as a truly great Tevye.

REVIEW

"Fiddler on the Roof"

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Through Nov. 4 in Shea's Buffalo Theatre (646 Main St.). Tickets are $35 to $90 at the Shea's box office or online at sheas.org and ticketmaster.com.

 

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