‘Fiddler’ at Arena: 50 Years’ Strong, True and Rich

It was an eclectic audience on hand for the official opening night of Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It cuts across tastes, memories and generations.

There were, for instance, several people who had actually seen the one-of-a-kind Zero Mostel in the original, and there were people there who had never seen it, like the young woman sitting next to me. Somehow, this production, this musical, almost effortlessly managed to reach out and touch not only someone but pretty much everyone.

Smith gave us a “Fiddler,” a Tevye, his daughters, and all the residents of this small Jewish village living a precarious and dangerous life in Czarist Russia that clung cleanly to the original. She left no obvious directorial thumbprints on the production, except for one important one: a clear, tangible faith in the power of the material to move us and the talent of the company to do the same.

Nothing had changed in a show that has been done many times in uncounted places with uncounted actors. Here was a fiddler, this time ensconced in wooden trappings above the station. Here was Tevye, the milkman, his absolute faith in tradition being time and time again tested by his daughters and constant impending disasters at the hands of their Russian overlords. Here were the familiar songs that echoed and fine-tuned the rhythms of life in the village and in Tevye’s family—“Sunrise, Sunset,” “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life” and so on.

One thing was very different—the theater-in-the-round setting of the Fichandler space, which gave an added naturalness and intimacy to the proceedings. And the acting and singing as a whole was better than good, headed by Jonathan Hadary as Tevye.

It’s no small task doing Tevye in front of an audience with such a warehouse of memories of other actors assaying the part—or with no memories at all. Hadary was walking in large footsteps that included Harvey Fierstein, the formidable Theodore Bikel, in town for his 90th Birthday, who had done the role more times than other actor, as well as Hershel Bernardi and Topol.

Hadary is not big of voice, body or even gesture. He lets Tevye be himself without trying to bowl you over with heartiness and earthquake-sized pain and feeling. Like many other Tevyes, he’s not a great singer, but he is a terrifically natural actor—this is a Tevye you can feel for and maybe raise a glass with. He’s stronger than he looks—not only does this Tevye pull his milk cart to spell his ailing horse, he pulls our hearts to him and his friends, family, daughters, their beaus and his wife. It’s a little magical—every scene he’s in with someone else makes them shine.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is another foray by Molly Smith into the annals of the great American musicals, begun in spectacular fashion with “South Pacific,” continued with “Camelot” and “Oklahoma” and more recently with “The Music Man” and “My Fair Lady.”

“Fiddler” has a historic place in that genre, for all the right reasons, but it’s also a musical that is based on Yiddish short stories and chronicles the lives of people who have every reason not to rejoice. They are also the source of the lifeblood of American ideals and dreams—the characters—the survivors—would eventually come to America to invest their culture, music, literature and art into that great American stream of immigrant contribution.

Watching Tevye, as each of his daughters falls in love—without the help of a matchmaker—with a tailor, an intellectual rebel exiled to Siberia, and, the last bitter pill he cannot swallow, a Russian, is to watch a man embracing tradition even as he has to let go of many of the strands from which it’s made. That “Fiddler” is bracing and embracive, that it touches old memories and new experiences, is a kind of theater tradition. Or as Motel the tailor sings, it’s a little bit of a “Miracle of Miracles”.

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