Theater Review: Fiddler On The Roof

Fiddler Production Won’t Fiddle With Essentials

By Montague Gammon III

So, how do you stage a once-big-budget classic of musical theatre in these lean(er) times of high-tech expectations and net-diluted attention spans?

Well, according to Sammy Dallas Bayes, veteran director of the beloved, exuberant and poignant Fiddler on the Roof, which will play Chrysler Hall May 31 to June 5, you take pretty much the same attitude that the characters in the play adopt when real hardships—not just tightened entertainment budgets—beset them.

Poor Tevye (a Jewish Russian milkman who is literally, economically, rubles and kopeks poor) does not feel sorry for himself, even when anti-Semitism drives him and his family from their native village.

No “poor me” attitude, says Bayes. “They just get on with it.”

(Bayes similarly praises Richmond-born actress Nancy Evans, who plays Tevye’s wife Golde, as “wonderful,” both for her talent and “her way of working.” He describes her repeatedly asking for just a little more time, more input, on her scenes. In essence, he implies, she gets on with her craft with Tevye-like determination.)

Fiddler is set in the (fictional) rural Russian town of Anatevka. The year is 1905, a time of routine pogroms: organized, often violent and even fatal persecutions of Jews that were officially sanctioned or overlooked.

Tevye and wife Golde have five daughters. The eldest three provoke conflict by their increasingly anti-traditional choices in marital partners.

The eldest wants to wed a childhood friend rather than the wealthy, much older widower with whom the local matchmaker has arranged a marriage. The second falls in love with a Marxist radical, and the third, unforgivably, chooses a Russian Gentile.

Fiddler’s lavish original 1964 production won nine of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, set a record as the first Broadway musical to run more than 3,000 performances, gave rise to a triple-Oscar winning 1971 film, to numerous productions all over the world and to four Broadway revivals.

The third of those, in 1990, won a Tony as Best Revival. Bayes choreographed that production, which basically reproduced the original version.

To say that times have changed in the intervening two decades understates, vastly, what is glaringly self-evident.

The current economy, the expectations of 21st Century audiences and the exigencies of touring all make demands on big shows like Fiddler, that are as novel, in their way, as Tevye’s daughters’ departures from his beloved, centuries-old traditions.

The 2011 cast is smaller and the simpler sets are shifted between scenes in full view of the audience, for example, but, Bayes promises, the production preserves “the essence of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein,” the composer, lyricist and writer of Fiddler’s dialogue.

It’s a classic, he points out, and what makes it a classic remains undiluted.

Just as, one might say, Tevye and Golde remain true to the faith at the foundation of their traditions, even as they adapt to external changes in their circumstances and their world.

Fiddler on the Roof, composed by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein. Part of Broadway Across America at Chrysler Hall, 215 St. Pauls Blvd, Norfolk. Call 757-664-6464 or visit for more information, show times and tickets.

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