“Sometimes I think, when it gets too quiet up there, you say to yourself, ‘What kind of mischief can I play on My friend Tevye?'”
Every so often a tour comes through PPAC that seems to have all the right pieces and just doesn’t fit. It’s understood that the road can do a lot to erode a Broadway production, but in the case of Fiddler on the Roof, currently playing until Sunday, February 16, the erosion isn’t immediately evident.
The production values are excellent. The scenic design by Michael Yeargan is gorgeous, as are the costumes by Catherine Zuber. The simple approach to staging adds a lot to the tale of a poor milkman and the outside world he’s failing to keep at bay. The illustrative design coupled with a warm but wooden palette helps create some remarkable imagery. At times, you feel as though you’re watching paintings come to life, but unfortunately even the prettiest of paintings don’t make for great theater.
Based on a collection of stories by Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the greatest accomplishments in American musical theater. The show features iconic songs like “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” The original Broadway production opened in 1964 under the direction of Jerome Robbins, and it’s rarely been without a major production since then. This latest revival was directed by Bartlett Sher, who has become known for restoring old classics at Lincoln Center like South Pacific and My Fair Lady. This production opened in 2015 at the Broadway Theatre and ran for a little over a year before going on tour, which means it’s now on one of its last legs. Interestingly, a Yiddish production of Fiddler recently closed off-Broadway after running twice as long as the Broadway revival. So be assured, the show still has plenty of surprises to supply — if you know where to look.
The story centers around Tevye (played by Yehezkel Lazarov) who has five daughters, and the show traces his family in their Russian shtetl of Anatevka at the beginning of the last century as Tevye’s oldest three girls buck tradition and marry for love, while rumors swirl about Jewish people being expelled from their villages by the Tsar. Will such a fate befall Anatevka?
So much of the musical is about the balance of the personal and the political, living locally and trying to maintain your faith and keep your family together while recognizing that global matters eventually reach even the smallest of places. The show has become a success in community theaters and high schools, because it offers an opportunity to laugh at universal matters such as marriage and children, while still creating an undercurrent of gravitas that few productions lean into, and I imagine the excitement around having a director like Sher helm the latest revival was imagining what his pure-but-potent approach could do to bring the show’s bigger matters to the forefront.
Sadly, by doing so, the production often feels as if it’s working against its source material. Lazarov and company manage to mine some interesting discoveries from the libretto, but there’s no denying that it wants to be played like, well, a musical comedy from the 1960s. Many of the scenes are slowed down to a crawl, which then ricochet into uptempo numbers like “Miracle of Miracles.” By trying to place too much importance on the domestic scenes, it lessens the impact of the show’s climax, because we’ve been feeling it all along.
Then we have the actors, certainly a talented ensemble, but many of them are woefully miscast. This is usually the biggest problem with a non-Equity tour — you’re still likely to get a lot of talent, but there’s no guarantee it’s being used properly. The disparity between the acting and the production design is hard not to notice, particularly Lazarov and Maite Uzal, who played his wife Golde. Lazarov is a spry and vibrant Tevye, which is an interesting take on the character, but doesn’t seem to fit the beleaguered man he claims himself to be when he’s speaking with God. Uzal simply reads too young, as do many in the ensemble. Carol Beaugard as Yente the Matchmaker seemed to have a lot of trouble with her line readings, missing more than one great punchline.
Fiddler is a deceptively daunting show to pull off, and when done poorly, it can drag on and seem inconsequential. As you’re approaching hour three, you begin to wonder why you should care about yet another daughter marrying someone Tevye isn’t going to approve of, which is why it’s so vital that you have a cast who can create vivid portraits of their characters so that you’ll be able to invest fully in them. Instead, it seems as though the priority was to find great singers and dancers who aren’t necessarily bad actors, but have trouble standing out, and aren’t done any favors by the more heavy-handed direction. A more seasoned cast might have been able to withstand it, and it’s a good reason why if you’re paying to see a show at PPAC (or anywhere for that matter) you should make sure you’re getting an Equity production, since the non-Equity ones charge the same and frequently offer less in terms of quality.
If you’ve never seen Fiddler on the Roof before, it’s still a production well-worth catching, but it seems to be losing its greatness the farther it travels from home.
Fiddler on the Roof runs through Sunday at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St, PVD. For information, call 401-421-2787.