It is impossible not to be moved — frightened, even — by the stark relevancy of Fiddler on the Roof. The persecution at the center of this Bock and Harnick masterwork centers around Jews living in Czarist Russia just after the turn of the century, yet today's perilous political climate has rendered this timeless musical particularly potent.
In the New Repertory Theatre's deeply moving revival (directed beautifully by Broadway's original Motel, Austin Pendleton), this intimate production hits home so hard, you're likely to find that it sticks with you long after the lights come up.
In the rundown shtetl of Anatevka, a small but close-knit village, devotion to tradition is second only to their devotion to God. Tevye, a poor dairyman (a remarkable Jeremiah Kissel), finds himself at a crossroads as he must confront a changing tide that threatens the traditions that have informed his entire life. As all that Tevye has known begins to crumble, the impending Russian invasion looms over everything, resulting in all of the villagers being forced out of their home. Pendleton has created a tremendous sense of claustrophobia that increases as the story unfolds and the walls of Tevye's life begin closing in around him.
Having been a member of the original cast, Pendleton has an undisputedly valuable understanding of Fiddler. He witnessed Jerome Robbins (along with composers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and book writer Joseph Stein) craft one of the greatest musicals ever written. He is intimately familiar with these rich characters, and it shows in this deeply moving and heartfelt production.
But no production of Fiddler can succeed without its Tevye, and Kissel is a revelation. He is relentlessly funny, yet we always remain aware of the pain lurking behind his wonderfully expressive eyes. His portrayal is both a brilliant exercise in physical comedy and an exhaustive display of rich character study.
As Tevye's wife, Golde, Amelia Broome is a little too warm, not allowing for her character to offer as much of a balance for Tevye. Though her second-act duet with Tevye, "Do You Love Me?," is a musical highlight. Their three oldest daughters, Tzeitel (Abigail Goldfarb), Hodel (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), and Chava (Victoria Britt), are first-rate; particularly affecting is Muirhead's sensational "Far From the Home I Love." The always excellent Patrick Varner is a charming Motel, and Ryan Mardesich is just right as Perchik.
As excellent as this production is, it isn't perfect. There is a polish that is missing from almost all of the secondary characters, and the ensemble is comprised entirely of young actors (or a village, whose citizens are supposed to span the generations, would be nice to see some older generations represented in the crowd). Given all the subtleties of this production, it is surprising that there is a lack of attention to creative detail like the costumes (designed by Kathleen Doyle), which are not entirely period-appropriate, including five-pocket jean-style pants and Lazar Wolf's modern tuxedo jacket and bowler hat. Keith Parham's lighting design would benefit from a bit more subtlety. Stephen Dobay's set, though, is excellent. Pendleton has opted to have the fiddler (Dashiell Evett) onstage by Tevye's side for most of the show, an awkward device that tends to be more of a distraction.
Even with its flaws, Pendleton's production of Fiddler on the Roof is an emotional powerhouse that sticks to your ribs. The show's final image, of the Russian officers sitting in chairs watching as the Jews flee their beloved Anatevka, is a chilling reminder of the Holocaust and a statement on the divisive rhetoric that still poisons our world today.