When first we met Tevye the dairy farmer, central figure in the landmark musical Fiddler on the Roof, it was 1971, the year of the film’s release.
Then again, it might have been 1964, when Broadway held its breath at the spectacle of Fiddler’s opening night.
And hey; don’t forget 1894, when novelist Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters was published — that’s 125 years ago, plenty of time for family tradition to fuel Tevye’s reason for being as he struggles with its impending destruction.
Tevye’s crippling poverty weighs on his life, as the current Broadway San Diego production makes abundantly clear. More to the point, his five dowryless daughters show signs of rebellion against convention amid their choices of potential mates.
So why go for the laughs in this, theater’s modern testament to anti-Semitism? Has the passage of time somehow eroded Tevye’s victimhood and, by extension, the dire state of Judaism in pre-revolutionary Russia?
Nah. Director Bartlett Sher has confused bemusement with amusement — the result is a largely disappointing piece, anchored by a character whose trials haven’t quite impacted his sense of right and wrong.
This show is absolutely as lush as you care, its lavish strains transparent in Michael Yeargan’s fanciful sets and in the sprightly nuances by music conductor Michael Uselmann and choreographer Christopher Evans. Favorites such as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Tradition” more than get their due as Tevye fights to balance his religious tenets with those that swirl about the Imperial Russian shtetl of Anatevka, circa 1905.
. . . [A]mid Tevye’s thoughtful sadness looms a harlequin’s comportment . . .
Tevye’s three eldest daughters — Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Chava (Natalie Powers) — are busy thinking about marriage even as Tevye insists that his decision on their mates is final. The counterpoint is much more ominous, as military rule will threaten Anatevka’s (and Tevye’s) peace through the forced relocation of its populations. The strong hint of a pogrom looms as the action fades to black.
But amid Tevye’s thoughtful sadness looms a harlequin’s comportment, that of a village jokester who betrays his weariness through shtick. “You are a good man,” he happens to tell a constable. “If I may say so, it’s too bad you’re not a Jew.” “That’s what I like about you, Tevye,” the screw replies. “You’re always joking.”
And that’s precisely the problem. The greater threat never quite permeates the show, with the nearly 40 lesser portrayals almost indistinguishable from Tevye’s raison d’être (as a friend quipped, “(Sher) might as well set Hamlet at a clown college”). Situation comedy rears its head too often to justify the somber conclusion, impressively staged though it is.
As portrayed by Yehezkel Lazarov, Tevye is earnest and rangy, and he’s in great voice, but his jester mentality confounds his obsession with family and community tradition. Tevye’s wife Golde (Maite Uzal) is pretty good at shrugging off her husband’s fetish with convention, but her role doesn’t always draw her sympathies toward Tevye’s other qualities (at least not until the nice second-act tune “Do You Love Me?”). Carol Beaugard’s matchmaker Yente is hastily thought through, as are a slew of the secondary roles; the exception is that of the Constable, which Jeff Brooks very nicely portrays as a sympathetic character.
Fiddler on the Roof, which won two Tony Awards for director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and was the first Broadway musical to surpass 3,000 performances, has been revived 14 times in the U.S. and the U.K.; this particular installment is from 2015, and a British tour is under way. That’s a phenomenal load of press for one show — but certainly, some installments were and are better than others. While speculation holds that this entry isn’t the worst in the history of the universe, it loses a lot in translation. Indeed, its major missteps infect the collective accordingly.
This review is based on the press-opening performance of May 29. Fiddler on the Roof runs through June 2 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. downtown. $149-$189. 619-564-3000, broadwaysd.com.