It’s an unfortunate reality that it remains common for people to be forced from their homes, sent off to neighbouring countries without any certainty as to the future that awaits them – if it be any future at all.
The state of the world today is precisely why the central themes that permeate Fiddler on the roof resound so strongly with audiences in 2016. The musical, based on a series of stories by Yiddish author and playwright, Sholem Aleichem, tells the story of Eastern European Jews in 1905. But the plight of this community may remind theatregoers of international conflicts that have plagued the world in more recent times.
Originally staged on Broadway in 1964, the events of Fiddler on the roof take place in the Russian village of Anatevka and focus on its Jewish inhabitants. At its core, Fiddler is a story fixed on the notion of tradition, and the challenges when members of a community contemplate deviation from cultural and religious norms that are so deeply entrenched. It’s an examination of the consequences that can confront an individual in such a community, who refuses to accept that adhering to particular practises is necessary simply because those practises represent the way that things have always been done.
At the centre of the tale, Tevye (Anthony Warlow) is a milkman, deeply committed to his faith and community. Throughout the show, he struggles with family member decisions to stray from community traditions in various respects, and must ultimately deal with not just the uprooting of those traditions, but upheaval from his home.
As Tevye, Warlow gives a performance that is second to none, and worth the ticket price on its own. His Tevye is strong-willed and pious, but so obviously full of love for his daughters and a hugely sympathetic character. Warlow’s attention to detail ensures no facial expression or gesture is ever wasted and, far from caricature, his Tevye is as three-dimensional as is conceivably achievable. Vocally, he is faultless, but it’s not just in terms of his technical precision. It’s in his ability to deliver each number with vocals laden with emotion – emotion that feels sincere. An absolute highlight is ‘If I were a rich man’, which serves to demonstrate the sheer virtuosity of Warlow as a musical theatre performer. Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine him being bested by anyone for a Helpmann leading actor gong this year.
A solid principal and ensemble cast supports Warlow. Sigrid Thornton is wonderfully entertaining as Tevye’s sharp-tongued wife, Golde. Vocally, she doesn’t exhibit great power, but her voice is ample to deliver Golde’s sung parts. Singer-songwriter Lior makes an impressive debut on the musical theatre circuit as tailor, Motel Kamzoil. His meek and mild-mannered Motel is endearing and, as you’d expect, his vocals are just as easy to listen to as they appear to be for Lior to deliver.
Of Tevye’s five daughters, it’s the oldest three who get the impression to make their mark on stage, and Teagan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers are all strong in their portrayals of Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava respectively.
Additionally, Blake Bowden is a convincing Perchik, the Bolshevik revolutionary who openly encourages those around him to question their beliefs, and Jensen Overend is effective as the kind, sympathetic young Russian, Fydeka.
Audiences today remain entertained by Fiddler on the roof thanks to Joseph Stein’s sharp and witty book, and the classic score by composer, Jerry Bock, and lyricist, Sheldon Harnick. Songs such as ‘Tradition’, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ and ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ have made their way from the confines of theatres into the mainstream, and slightly older audience attendees will likely hear a familiar tune or three. For younger theatregoers, Fiddler on the roof should afford a wonderful introduction to one of the classic musical theatre pieces that has held up much better than many compositions written for the theatre during the same period. It certainly helps that they’re performed here by an excellent 10-piece orchestra under the musical direction of one of our country’s finest, Kellie Dickerson.
Visually, Fiddler may not meet the scale of monster productions we often see in major musicals today, but its simplicity is appropriate. Richard Roberts’ set design is particularly impressive. 3-D renderings of the internals of Tevye’s home and Motel’s shop open up onto the stage, emerging from a wall of simple timber boards into which the structures all fit perfectly. It’s an extremely clever manner in which to realise the village of Anatevka – home to a community that holds on tightly to its traditions, where every person and practise has its perfect place into which it fits, like a patchwork.
Paul Jackson’s lighting design is appropriately missing the kinds of moving light effects that feature prominently in contemporary shows. Notably, the darkly lit moments in ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ and ‘Anatevka’ are both beautiful and effective.
All in all, Fiddler on the roof is a classic work worth revisiting, particularly given what Warlow brings to this production. And until the global community does away with ethnically driven conflicts as it would an out-dated tradition, the show’s poignant social messages remain timeless.
Fiddler on the roof is playing at the Capitol Theatre under Sunday May 8. To purchase tickets, click here