Stage

A.D. Players' Fiddler on the Roof Is Classic Broadway

Adam Shapiro as Tevye
Adam Shapiro as Tevye Photo by Jordan McGuffie

When radical student Perchik (Patrick Fretwell) makes his entrance in the third scene of Fiddler on the Roof (1964), the multiple Tony Award-winning Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Joseph Stein (book) and Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer) musical about Jewish life in imperial Russia's Pale of Settlement, deftly on stage via A.D. Players, he states that he's newly arrived in Anatevka from Kiev. The word slaps us in the face. You can hear the audience's breath being taken aback. In that one word, this classic musical pulsates with relevancy.

All Jews were forced to live in the Pale, which would now be Ukraine, Poland, and Crimea. In small impoverished villages, the infamous shtetls, Jews were discriminated, brutalized, and demeaned. Their threadbare lives were circumscribed; the communities forced into menial labor that kept them mired in bleakness; their daily existence threatened by the Czar's racist pogroms.

But the Jews had one thing – one faint hope – that buoyed them in the darkness: their Tradition. It's the musical's through line and constant source of conflict for Tevye the milkman (Adam B. Shapiro), as modern life constantly upends his authority. The Papa, as the bracing opening number tells us, “Who, day and night, must scramble for a living, Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers? And who has the right, as master of the house, To have the final word at home?”

His rights are being chiseled away by his feisty daughters, his bossy wife Golde (Aviva Pressman), and electrifying new ideas from the outside world. Tradition solidifies the past. Change is the future, and Tevye's beloved tradition is fading fast. Whether he is ready for it or not, the future will be forced upon him.

Under the sure hand of director Aaron Brown, the spirited feet of choreographer Courtney D. Jones, the klezmer-inspired baton of maestro Jonathan Craft as he leads an 11-piece orchestra, the sprightly ensemble cast, the set pieces from Torsten Louis that glide in from the wings or descend from the flies, the bejeweled lighting from David Gipson, and Leah Smith's patched woolens and babushkas, this beloved musical gleams with freshness and a radiant spirituality that isn't often seen on today's stage.

It wasn't seen on stage in the '60s either, which is one major reason this most original musical was an instant hit and became the longest running theater piece in Broadway history up to that point. It's easy to see why. It's about family and the community as family. The show is stuffed with characters we respond to. In Stein's masterful book, they come alive. In Harnick and Bock's songs, with their chromatic wisps of liturgical chant and equal doses of Broadway bounce, the show melds into a cohesive whole. Fiddler portrays a forgotten little world now made universal.

Shapiro breathes an easy charm, a bit softer than what we've seen in other interpretations, but his comedy timing is rich, and Tevye is chockablock with Borscht Belt shtick when he “negotiates” with God or spars with Golde and his older daughters, Tzeitel (Elliett Reinecke), Hodel (Paige Klase), and Chava (Cara DeGaish), who itch to get married to the ones they love, not the ones their Papa has arranged with prickly village matchmaker Yente (Shondra Marie). Tzeitel loves Motel the Tailor (Jared Guidry), Hodel falls for firebrand Perchik, and literary Chava sets her sights on Russian Christian Fyredka (Gabriel Mullen). All are in fine voice.

The original show boasted Robbins' iconic dances – the “Bottle Dance” sequence from Tzeitel and Motel's wedding is one such set piece, and you can't stage a proper Fiddler without it. Jones creates a fine facsimile for the four dancers who crouch, kick, and plunge with wine bottles atop their brimmed hoiche hats. The routine stops the show, as it should.

My favorite scene has always been “Tevye's Dream,” where he convinces Golde that Motel is the correct suitor, not the butcher Lazar Wolf (Michael C. Morrison). He conjures cuddly Grandma Tzeitel (Megan Haines) and Lazar's vengeful former wife Fruma-Sarah (Mara Jill Herman) from behind and between their bed to predict doom if Tzeitel marries the butcher. “How can you allow your daughter to take my place/House, keys, clothes, pearls.” It's comically spooky as Herman's soprano goes into overdrive while the ensemble gyrates under Gipson's eerie green lighting. It's tremendously effective and so much fun.

Fiddler's relevance is more pronounced than ever. Its message of family tradition and a community that suffers through hardship yet perseveres speaks to all. The fiddler on the roof (Carolina Ornelas) is both symbol of their precarious existence and their indomitable faith. At the end as the villagers disperse after the Czar's edict, the mysterious fiddler follows Tevye and his family on their journey to America. (Why he leaves his fiddle on the pile of discarded belongings seems the wrong message for the somewhat hopeful conclusion of the show. His music – Anatevka's binding tie – must follow Tevye. He's going to need it.)

Fiddler is one of the great masterwork musicals. No question. Take your children. They will be uplifted. And they will thank you.

Fiddler on the Roof continues through August 4 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays at A.D. Players at the George Theater 5420 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $25-$75.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover