Fiddler on the Roof is one of a handful of gold standard American musicals – think Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story – all that are the work of Jewish creative teams. With all of these, there’s something unimpeachable about the brilliant combination of libretto, musical composition, lyrics and choreography (when it is replicated accurately) that enables even mediocre productions to shine.
Fiddler, of course, is in a class by itself. This season, Arena Stage is touting its production in the famous in-the-round Fichandler Theater as the 50th-anniversary production. Directed by Molly Smith, who made hay with a brilliant recasting of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! as a multiracial diverse community of cowboys and farmers, this Fiddler is, as Smith has emphasized, traditionally cast, not necessarily with Jews and Russian actors, but with performers who have an Eastern European peasant look.
Casting, though, seems to be one of this production’s biggest letdowns. Tevye is, of course, the glue that holds any Fiddler production together. The choice of the small, slight and milquetoast actor Jonathan Hadary is certainly against type. The first Tevye in the Joseph Stein/Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical was the larger than life, bombastic Zero Mostel. No, not every Tevye needs that hefty barrel-chested body and outsized persona to make his mark, but being Tevye requires both a sense of spirit and gravitas. Sure he’s sly, even foolish sometimes and henpecked, but, ultimately he is The Papa, and that must carry weight.
Hadary, unfortunately, plays Tevye like a nebbish. Thus when faced with his daughters’ various tradition-breaking rebellions – from Tzeitel (Dorea Schmidt) choosing her own mate, Motel (Joshua Morgan) the poor tailor; to Hodel (Hannah Corneau) leaving home for Siberia to marry a secular revolutionary, we don’t see the necessary transformation from steadfast, mostly ruler of the roost, to acceptance to rejection. Instead, Hadary accepts his first two daughters’ rebellions with hardly a struggle and more of a shrug. And with his ultimate rejection, when (spoiler if you are the last living soul who hasn’t seen Fiddler) Chava (Maria Rizzo) runs off with Fyedka (Kurt Boehm), a Russian Christian, Tevye’s rejection barely reads.
Smith’s production is mostly barren from necessity on the Fichandler stage – benches and tables move in and out mostly with ease to set the scenes. What carries this show – and all professional productions – is the Jerome Robbins’ choreography, which must be replicated according to the Robbins estate. Here choreographer Parker Esse has rejiggered the dance sequences for the round stage, with mostly little lost. What’s lacking in the dance sequences, is again something ineffable, a verve and essence that the dancing these shtetl-dwellers do is for the joy of connecting with a higher spirit. Thus in “Tradition,” with its beautifully designed folk motifs, here fully played in a circle, the uplifted arms need an impetus not just from the biceps but from the chest and sternum. There’s an internal bounce, an up-and-down motion that is missing, that makes the forms and shapes correct, but not fully embodied.
The famous first act wedding sequence, too, needs more ecstatic movement to infuse the men’s dancing with deeper rootedness and uplift. Robbins spent months during the creative period in the early 1960s attending chasidic weddings and other simchot in Brooklyn to research authentic Jewish dances. That’s where he saw real chasidim dancing with bottles balanced on their hats. He added his own balletic touches and created one of the Broadway stage’s most memorable dance sequences. Arena’s bottle dancers –Jimmy Mavrikes, Kyle Schliefer, Curtis Schroeger and Trevor Illingworth – hold their own, but, with one bottle down the night I attended, didn’t reach the ecstatic frenzy I was waiting for.
The show’s other centerpiece, the dream sequence, has been beautifully costumed by Paul Tazewell, who drew direct inspiration from characters in Marc Chagall paintings, as the original production did for the lone fiddler character, here played with understated elegance by Alex Alferov. A bull-headed man, and rooster-headed woman, white-winged angels and a passel of Chagall’s other imaginative characters are a lovely addition to this sequence, which is often played in a graveyard and meant to resemble the famous 1939 Yiddish film The Dybbuk.
This Fiddler, too, lacks enough strong soloists among its leads to carry the experience to higher levels. Only Anne Arvia, as Tevye’s rueful and domineering wife, Golde, stands out. As Tevye, Hadary simply lacks the vocal chops, muscular presence and sly wit to lead this cast. And without a leader, the cast has nowhere to go. As a whole the chorus along with the orchestra directed by Paul Sportelli can pull together for those large numbers – the opener “Tradition” and the final poignant hymn to “Anatevka.”
And yet, taken as a whole, there’s something, still, that’s indestructible about this far from perfect version of Fiddler on the Roof. With Stein’s brilliant book, the comical lines and serious moments still resonate. The Bock/Harnick songs remain masterpieces. The Robbins choreography still lives in the bones of the dances. Fiddler on the Roof continues to be a work of genius, even when a production doesn’t live up to its promise.
Fiddler on the Roof is onstage through Jan. 4 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in the District. Tickets are available at 202-488-3300 or at arenastage.org.