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Tradition! ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Straz sticks to the script

The revival of a pointed story about tradition stays close to the source. | Review
"Fiddler on the Roof" is at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. [Courtesy of Joan Marcus]
Published Nov. 8
Updated Nov. 8

TAMPA — Everybody remembers Company, Stephen Sondheim’s 1969 musical about a mid-30s bachelor whose friends were all urging him to get married. A West End revival last year changed the lead character from Bobby to Bobbie, only now everyone is obsessing over her biological clock.

In May, Present Laughter, a 1942 Noel Coward comedy about a womanizer juggling multiple relationships, opened at London’s Old Vic, this time with leading man Garry as bisexual. Both remakes expand the scope of the original in a way that plausibly reflects the changing times.

When Fiddler on the Roof returned three years ago to Broadway, the question was whether that 50-year-old musical would get a makeover too. The revival directed by Bartlett Sher delivers no such surprises, which for a story about religious and gender discrimination is probably a good idea.

Updating revivals of warhorses isn’t just a matter of “keeping theater alive,” as directors are quick to explain. It’s also about keeping customers happy, which they might not be if they think they’ve seen the same show before. So while this Fiddler won’t win any awards for innovation, it deserves respect for its honesty.

RELATED: Read more theater reviews and stage news here

The few tweaks Sher added mostly help, starting with a present-day figure who strolls on stage to set the opening scene by reading from an old book. His identity seems deliberately but loosely drawn, a disheveled intellectual wearing a cap, a prayer shawl slung over his shoulders.

Within moments, the actor who played the narrator re-emerges as Tevye the Dairyman, whose dilemmas over his daughters’ engagements turn the axle that drives the story.

The musical was adapted from stories by Sholem Aleichem, a Ukrainian writer who fled to the United States in 1905 after seeing pogroms sweep across czarist Russia. He set Tevye the Dairyman in the Pale of Settlement, a segregated zone beyond which Jews were forbidden.

The show opens with Tradition, a strong chorus belting the lyrics to the back of Morsani Hall. Tevye labors hard throughout, even filling in for a lame horse to pull the milk wagon himself. Two of the early numbers — Matchmaker, Matchmaker and If I Were a Rich Man — allow his daughters and Tevye alone to set a tone of hardy people bearing burdens with good cheer.

In a masterful performance as Tevye, Yehezkel Lazarov wore the subsequent exhaustion in his body, his movements a dialogue between weariness and renewed determination. Maite Uzal, who plays Tevye’s wife Golde, was as tough and tender as the role calls for. Together the pair carried a show that otherwise had its uneven patches but is still worth seeing.

The assumptions behind arranged marriages are starting to crumble at the turn of the 20th century, particularly as the dark side of “tradition” reveals itself in xenophobia. The parents watch, mostly helplessly, as one by one their eldest three daughters become engaged to men who offer their love but not security.

The production has carefully selected its points of emphasis, buttressed by an 11-member orchestra playing Klezmer music, the Eastern European folk style that can deliver love songs or lamentations in minor keys. Music underwrote the show’s strongest emotional moments, particularly in songs with religious overtones such as Sabbath Prayer and Sunrise, Sunset, the latter played with solemnity against a sunset backdrop that stretches to the top of the theater’s visual space.

The revival’s sharpest tweak came through the fresh choreography of Hofesh Shechter, who added on to the original by Jerome Robbins. The lengthy wedding scene and its bottle dance remain a highlight.

Other changes don’t work as well. In a dream sequence as Golde and Tevye sleep near each other in single beds, two ghosts on stilts walk through sequined blue light to deliver blessings or warnings over the first engagement. This mini fireworks show is going for surreal but is dwarfed by a lot of surrounding dark space on a huge stage. The overall effect is more baffling than magical.

The cast includes a wide range of performing skills, and that hurts a little. Suitors Perchik (Nic Casaula) and Fyedka (Jack O’Brien) just miss believability with overanimated and laconic performances, and Andrew Hendrick sends confusing signals as the Constable, a reluctant enforcer who never commits to anything, even when smashing furniture.

Ruthy Froch delivers a solid performance as Hodel, who falls for budding revolutionary Perchik, and her sister Tzeitel (Kelly Gabrielle Murphy) and the tailor Motel (Nick Siccone) make a cute couple. Meanwhile, Lazarov and Uzal turn Do You Love Me?, a charming duet reflecting on their 25-year arranged marriage, into a bona fide tearjerker.

A silent fiddler emerges here and there to play a few bars, including at the forced exodus of the entire village to nowhere. It’s a gloomy finale, the lighting on displaced villagers now dimmed, reducing them to shadowy silhouettes.

The fiddler reprises the motif from Tradition, the notes of the final phrase climbing down the ladder to resolution. But his bow stops on the next to last note, a signal that these sorts of migrations never really end.

If You Go

Runs through Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $58 and up. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

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