‘Fiddler on the Roof’ explores the dark underside of love and politics

The cast of “Fiddler on the Roof,” at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 14.
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Caption
The cast of “Fiddler on the Roof,” at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 14. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Credit: Joan Marcus

Credit: Joan Marcus

New production is a thoughtful update of one of America’s most treasured musicals.

For decades, American audiences have treasured the comedic shenanigans of Tevye the dairyman and Yente the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the Broadway musical from 1964, Tevye — a tradition-bound father of five daughters in need of husbands — has an evening-long conversation with God that can feel more like a prescription for laughter than a portrait of existential dread.

But in director Bartlett Sher’s stunning revival, at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, the tone is more ominously black than blue-sky bright. Where there is love in abundance, there is also hate.

Contrary to Yente’s design, Tevye’s three eldest daughters choose partners that defy religious authority and parental wisdom. Gradually, they come to embrace the modern world, even as a brutal Russian regime displaces them at the dawn of the 20th century.

As directed by Sher, with exhilarating new choreography by Hofesh Shechter, the tale of Tevye (the excellent Yehezkel Lazarov) and his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal), sometimes plays like Sondheim come to the shtetl. The dark, fairy-tale quality of “Into the Woods” comes to mind, particularly in an electrifying dream sequence in which a pair of ghostly figures upend Tevye’s promise to let his eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Kelly Gabrielle Murphy), wed the well-off butcher, Lazar Wolf (Andrew Hendrick).

Lazarov, inhabiting a part originated by Zero Mostel and delightfully reimagined by Harvey Fierstein in 2005, is more drolly ironic than over-the-top. Such acting decisions go along with the over-arching somber mood.

Caption
The Israeli theater artist Yehezkel Lazarov plays Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 14. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Credit: Joan Marcus

The Israeli theater artist Yehezkel Lazarov plays Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 14.
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Caption
The Israeli theater artist Yehezkel Lazarov plays Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 14. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Credit: Joan Marcus

Credit: Joan Marcus

Less successful to my mind is Brooke Wetterhahn’s reading of Yente, a part that first belonged to Beatrice Arthur. Wetterhahn tries, but can’t quite muster, the foolish, Borscht Belt bluster that signifies a top-notch Yente. She does, however, redeem herself as Grandma Tzeitel, done up in pale white makeup and a Miss Havisham-meets-Elizabeth I gown. And as Fruma-Sarah, Wolf’s late wife, Rosie Webber makes an entrance for the ages.

From Tzeitel to Hodel (Ruthy Froch) to Chava (Noa Luz Barenblat), Tevye’s daughters display a budding feminism.

Tzeitel’s marriage to the tailor Motel (Daniel Kushner) clinches Act One, setting up the devastating turn of events to come. Hodel’s infatuation with Perchik (Solomon Reynolds) — a revolutionary thinker from Kiev — has a certain sizzle. But it’s Chaya’s union with the strapping Fyedka (Jack O’Brien) that shatters Tevye, and sets up Lazarov’s heartbreaking final solo, “Chavaleh.” (Of course, his “If I Were a Rich Man” is hardly a flop.)

Personally, I was transported by the design details, the well-crafted dances, the intricate music. Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) are titans of the genre; this production only reinforces that stature.

Inspired by the genius of Bock and the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, Shechter marries old-school Eastern European street dance with modern flair. In one sequence, dancers’ hands evoke menorahs. Robbins’ bottle dance survives virtually intact, and the celebratory wedding sequences unspool with joy and abandon.

Catherine Zuber costumes the players — Tevye’s clan, the Russian police officers, the townspeople — in spot-on period attire, and she has great fun in the fantastical interlude. Michael Yeargan’s set design tells the story in clean, uncluttered lines. (In one clever trick, set pieces representing the village hover over the stage, growing smaller as the characters are herded out of their homeland.) And, from start to finish, Donald Holder bathes this “Fiddler” with sumptuous light.

Sher is a director known for thoughtful updates of certain shopworn titles of the musical-theater canon (”South Pacific,” “The King and I”). His style is both intellectual and accessible. All that said, this “Fiddler,” which runs for almost three hours, can feel a bit flabby. You may leave the theater in a state of emotional exhaustion, but you will have much to ponder and unpack in the days and nights that follow.

As long as religious persecution exists, political despots erase entire cultures from the map, and traditions vanish, “Fiddler” will resonate.


THEATER REVIEW

“Fiddler on the Roof”

7:30 p.m. Nov. 10-11, 8 p.m. Nov. 12-13, 2 p.m. Nov. 13, 1 p.m. Nov. 14. $40-$140. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org

Bottom line: Beautiful and intense