As director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins was working on the 1964 path-breaking musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” At each meeting with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, Robbins would ask, “What’s this show about?” If you’re thinking, easy, it’s about Tevye, a Jewish milkman, his wife, Golda, and his five – five – daughters trying to survive in Czarist Russia, you’d only be half-right.
At one of those meetings, Harnick told NPR’s Terry Gross, someone said, “This show is about … this changing way of life, of a people, in these … little towns, these shtetls. And Robbins got very excited by that. He said if that’s the case, then what you have to write is a number about traditions.”
Thus, “Tradition,” the rousing opening number, was among the last to be written for the show. Since its Broadway premiere, “Fiddler on the Roof,” with its beloved book by Joseph Stein based on short stories from Sholem Aleichem, has taken on a life of its own, with regular re-appearances on the Great White Way, the 1971 movie starring Israeli actor Topol, and many, many Tevye’s from the original, Zero Mostel, to Theodore Bikel, Nehemiah Persoff to Harvey Fierstein. This singular play, which centers on Jewish characters and practices, has been examined in documentaries and produced in dozens of languages, including a popular Yiddish production in recent years.
Olney Theatre Center re-envisions the beloved classic, which for millions of Jews and non-Jews alike serves as much as a popular historical text on Old Country Jewry as a classic Broadway musical. Theater artistic director Jason Loewith, who in his younger days contemplated rabbinical school, tapped Peter Flynn to direct and re-cast the show with a 21st-century sensibility, but no changes to the script.
In Flynn’s conception, “Fiddler” opens not in Anatevka, the fictional Russian village where its Jews built their lives for generations and eked out a living despite antisemitic Czarist policies. Instead, the audiences’ initial encounter is after Anatevka, when the Jews have already moved on. The first view of the stage is a spacious waiting hall recalling for me Ellis Island, but the program notes it’s a European transit center, while a low hum of voices and industrial sounds fill the theater. Scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon has created a striking backdrop of wooden card catalogue-like floor-to-ceiling drawers and rows of rough-hewn wooden benches. Those waiting represent refugees from across Europe and beyond; Anatevka and the world of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a mere speck in the purview of the broader context of immigrant arrivals a century ago, and today.
Tevye and his family come forward, the scene shifts and suddenly his opening monologue introduces a flashback, taking viewers to Anatevka of his memories. There’s even a storybook passed among the cast. The rest of the musical plays out with no changes to script or musical numbers.
With a passel of well-loved and singable songs, from “Tradition” to “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sabbath Prayer” and “To Life” – just half of act I – “Fiddler” always feels like an old friend – at least when you’ve seen as many productions as I have over the past 30-plus years. The offstage 10-piece orchestra, helmed by Christopher Youstra, provides the essential full-sound for the musical numbers.
The full chorus works, featuring choreography by Lorna Ventura, fare the best, from “Tradition” to “Tevye’s Dream” with a dybbuk Fruma Sara screeching above the bumptious cast. Ventura has crafted lyrical balletic interludes for The Fiddler, danced by Graciela Rey, who weaves in and out of the scenic changes. As well, Ventura remains faithful to the most memorable and recognizable elements of Jerome Robbins’ impeccably researched original choreography, particularly the boisterous wedding dance when men in Chassidic garb balance bottles on their hats, sweeping across the floor on their knees.
Lanky Howard Kaye sports a trimmed beard, yet his Tevye feels uncharacteristically subdued, particularly early in the play. As the centerpiece and driving force of the show, this lack of charisma mutes some of the liveliest moments.
As Golde, Tevye’s wife, Rachel Stern carries the vocal chops in the couple, but in their wry act II duet, “Do You Love Me,” the warm-hearted reliance on each other doesn’t feel authentic. Perhaps as the run continues this will develop. Of the younger couples – Tzeitel and the poor tailor Motel (Sophie Schulman and Michael Wood), Hodel and the revolutionary student Perchik (Sumie Yotsukura and Noah Keyishian) and Chava and the Russian Fyedka (Ariana Caldwell and Jay Frisby) – the middle sister Hodel and her beau Perchik are most believably drawn to each other.
Olney’s current “Fiddler” veers from tradition with its framing of the play in an immigration hall and consciously casting against type to include actors representing various ethnic and racial identities rather than replicating the expected European Jewish Ashkenazi identity. Judaism today is making more room for Jews of color and Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, and perhaps some of that multiculturalism suggests the more expansive Jewish immigration experience.
The conception of casting a broader net for this 60-year-old quintessentially Jewish musical lends this production its contemporary feel. With “Fiddler’s” emphasis on assertion of religious freedom as its oppressed Jews seek a safe home, Flynn, the director, draws a direct link from the immigrants to Ellis Island to immigration’s 21st century wave from Central and Latin America, Africa and Asia, rather than Europe. This re-envisioning of a once groundbreaking musical asks the questions: Why shouldn’t a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof” resemble the community – and county – in which it is presented? Montgomery County, home to the 85-year-old Olney Theatre, is now demographically majority minority; four of the 10 most diverse cities in the U.S. are within its borders.
While “Fiddler on the Roof” continues to reflect and celebrate the Jewish immigrant journey, it was and remains a quintessentially American musical. Why can’t it resemble and celebrate 21st-century American immigrant stories in both its cast and its values.
“Fiddler on the Roof” through December 31, 2023. Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md. Tickets $35-$101. Visit olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400. Discounts for groups, seniors, military and students.
Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s award-winning arts correspondent. She writes on theater, dance and the arts for multiple publications.