Most Americans are at least somewhat aware of the uncomfortable relationship that the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec has with its mother country. What is probably less well-known is the social oppression that those few English-speakers still living in Quebec are said to suffer in their own homes. Many of the English speakers have long since left, but there is a large contingent of Jewish Canadians living in the province who apparently continue to experience discrimination at the hands of the "language police" and other authorities who only want French-Canadian citizens, language, and customs in the province.
It is this situation that writers Oren Safdie (book) and Ronnie Cohen (music and lyrics) use as a take-off point for their own version of Fiddler on the Roof, which they call Fiddler Sub-Terrain; the analogy is no longer a fiddler on the roof, but rather an 'accordionist in the basement.' The patriarch here is Teddy, not Tevye. In his opening number, he sings not about the importance of tradition but, rather, about 'partition,' explaining that there are plans to separate (or "ghettoize") the English-speaking sector from the rest of Quebec. Teddy is anxious for this, hoping it will allow he and his family to live in peace without fear of being terrorized for using the English tongue.
Plotwise, Sub-Terrain follows the original Fiddler's story quite closely, with Teddy marrying off his three daughters--humorously named here Hovel, Sciatica, and Mocha rather than Hodel, Tzeitel, and Chava--amidst social strife. The overwhelming difference is that, while Fiddler on the Roof is a warm, touching, classic musical comedy-drama, this contemporary version is a small, self-conscious, low-brow sort of spoof on the story.
The girls' suitors are now a cross-dressing lesbian named Boychik, an unemployed French-Canadian musician, and a quirky manufacturer and seller of discounted home goods. Teddy is in the bra business, the French-Canadians wear blue berets, and Yente-Yente, the matchmaker, is a man in drag. There are songs like "1-900," Teddy's paean to phone sex girls, and "Drapes," a paean to...drapes. (See what I mean by "low-brow?")
The show doesn't take itself seriously in the least. The actors sometimes break character and consult 'The Writer,' who sits in the audience, when they want changes to the script; and they make reference to the fact that they're spoofing Fiddler. This kind of thing can sometimes be cute, and it's mildly amusing here, but it doesn't make up for the fact that the play is often not funny and sometimes hard to follow. Some of the humor nears gross-out status and gets to be too much; a lot of it is just sophomoric and barely generates a smile.
The situation itself is actually really interesting; how many plays have you seen about Jewish Quebecois families and their struggle to fit into a French-speaking society? In the right hands, this subject could make for a fascinating comedy or drama. Unfortunately, Safdie's book is poorly structured and lacks sympathetic characters, while Cohen's music and lyrics are underwhelming.
There are bright spots, though. Sean Power as Maudit, Sciatica's French-Canadian beau, is sweet, and the show is usually the better for his being onstage. Mary Ann Conk is very good as Gilda, the Jewish mother whose concern for her daughters' happiness is only overcome by her concern that they marry well. As for the songs, "Partition" is an energetic opening number; Teddy's "When You're In Paris" (a parallel to Fiddler's "If I Were a Rich Man") is nice; and "A Shandeh," sung at Maudit and Sciatica's wedding, is a lot of fun.
This brings me to the best thing about Fiddler Sub-Terrain: the band. Sitting at the side of the stage and acting as a kind of jazzy klezmer combo, Brad Shepik on guitar, Yuri Lemeshev on accordion, Aaron Alexander on drums, and Fima Ephron on bass back up all the songs and keep us in the mood before the show and during intermission. A joy to listen to, they give Fiddler Sub-Terrain the style and soul that it lacks elsewhere.