There is nothing on this Earth that is guaranteed to make me cry as much as a good production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” And if you feel the same way, and are planning to see the current production at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, brace yourself, because it’s an excellent one.
Don’t expect anything groundbreaking. The Paper Mill, presenting this 1964 classic for the first time since 1983, goes with a very straightforward, traditional approach. Director Mark S. Hoebee (who is also the Paper Mill’s producing artistic director) uses the original Broadway choreography of Jerome Robbins, and the scenic design, by Kelly James Tighe, is based on Michael Yeargan’s original scenic design. Jordan Gelber is perfectly fine as the musical’s main character, Tevye, but doesn’t try to bring any new aspect to the role that previous Tevyes have left unexplored.
That’s not a complaint. “Fiddler on the Roof” doesn’t need to be reinvented to be magical. This may be a traditional production, but as Tevye himself says, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as … a fiddler on the roof!”
The poignancy of the musical — set in 1905 in the fictional Russian village of Anatevka, where the largely Jewish population struggles with poverty and anti-Semitic violence — is underscored, of course, by current wars in Israel and Ukraine, and the disturbing persistence of anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world.
This production is dedicated to the memory of the musical’s lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, who died in June at the age of 99. Harnick collaborated on the songs with composer Jerry Bock, and Joseph Stein wrote the book, which is based on the short stories of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.
You probably know the plot already, but just in case you don’t, here you go:
Tevye — a hard-working dairyman with a wry sense of humor and a philosophical streak — has five daughters, three of whom are of marrying age. He and his wife Golde (Jill Abramovitz) want to marry them off in a traditional way, through the town’s talkative, friendly but also somewhat obnoxious matchmaker Yente (Suzanne Grodner). But the three young women — who are aware, even in Anatevka, that the world is changing — want to follow their hearts.
The oldest daughter Tzeitel (Alexandra Socha), who must marry first according to tradition, rejects a match with the town’s wealthy but relatively old butcher Lazar Wolf (Jeremy Radin), a widower, so she can marry its young and poor but hard-working tailor Motel (Etai Benson). Tevye is upset at first, but can live with that. His second-born Hodel (Austen Danielle Bohmer) then confounds him further by marrying the revolutionary Perchik (David R. Gordon) after untraditionally asking for Tevye’s blessing AFTER getting engaged, rather than seeking his permission to take that step. And then Chava (Maya Jacobson) commits the ultimate sin, in Tevye’s eyes, by eloping with a non-Jew, Fyedka (Andrew Alstat).
While all this is going on, all the Jews in town are facing increasing oppression from local authorities, including a constable (Mark Campbell) who sympathizes with them but is feeling political pressure to come down on them, hard.
Ensemble members do a terrific job with the joyful, difficult-to-execute traditional dances at a bar — to celebrate the short-lived engagement of Tzeitel to Lazar Wolf — and then at the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel. The scene in which Tevye makes up a nightmare to convince Golde that the engagement to Lazar Wolf should be called off — he says that Lazar Wolf’s dead wife Fruma-Sarah (Blair Goldberg) came to him and threatened to haunt the couple — is appropriately surreal and scary.
You probably know most or at least many of the songs, too. “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset” are the most famous ones, though “Matchmaker,” “Tradition,” “To Life (L’Chaim)” and the sweet-and-funny duet “Do You Love Me?” (where Tevye insists on a declaration of love from his frosty wife, and gets it) are quite well known, too. And I can’t even type the name of the second-act ballads “Far From the Home I Love” and “Chavaleh (Little Bird)” without tearing up.
So, in other words, for a very entertaining theatrical experience — and one that should affect you deeply, too, on an emotional level — you can’t go wrong with this “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will present “Fiddler on the Roof” through Jan. 7. Visit papermill.org.
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