Lamb’s Players’ Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best shows they’ve ever done. Ever.
The title comes from a wall painting Marc Chagall did for the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre in 1920. He did several previous fiddlers — hatted heads tilted, overcoats, bowlegged knees — on various Russian roofs. For Lamb’s, designer Mike Buckley’s whole stage is a Chagall: buoyant, squiggly clouds on a white-mottled blue sky; roofs floating over Anatevka (or are they rising — or falling?). Even the floor has squiggles like the sky, as if the stage picture could, in fact, be upside-down.
Tevye, the harried milkman, explains: “In our little village...you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.” Buckley’s inventive set makes for a fragile image of a Jewish shtetl on the cusp of change.
Lamb’s added another rinse: Jerry Bock’s score has many klezmer inflections, based on the Jewish folk music that originated, many say, in Romania. Klezmer’s modeled on the human voice and ranges from laughing to weeping. Fiddler’s usually performed with a regular orchestra. Lamb’s music director G. Scott Lacy uses a six-person klezmer band: accordion, trumpet, clarinet, cello, percussion, violin. The sound’s as distinctive as hearing Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell strumming Delta blues on 12-string guitars.
The capper: in most versions, the “fiddler” is faking it, hand-synching the bow while a violin does the playing from the pit. At Lamb’s — and his first appearance was a wonderful surprise — Ernest Saucedo plays the instrument beautifully and moves around the stage like a sprite.
And he’s always there in time of need: the one constant, like a slender through-line, in a village doomed to extinction.
Tevye’s become such an icon, he’s often played as an epic in the flesh (à la Mostel, Topol, Bikel). Compared to these legendary performances, what Sam Zeller does looks almost too humble at first. His Tevye’s just a man: put-upon, torn between certainty and chaos, more than a mite irreverent, a lousy biblical scholar, but with an abiding humor (much more, in fact, than Sholem Aleichem’s original, who doesn’t make the transition).
“We are your chosen people,” Tevye kvetches at his Maker. But once in a while, “can’t you choose someone else?” Like a mailbox repeatedly stuffed with bad news, Zeller’s Tevye takes almost as many negative hits as Job. Zeller suffers each blow physically, as if the final one. His three eldest daughters refuse to marry a husband “matched” for her (each moves further away from tradition, with Chava, the third, reaching a point of no return when she runs off with a non-Jew). The outside world collapses as severely. A burly actor who tows his heavy cart like a tired ox, Zeller gives Tevye a (well-earned) resilience and adaptability. His weighing of factors (“on the other hand”; “on the other hand”) is a delight. If such a being were possible, he comes to resemble an impish Job.
Robert and Deborah Gilmour Smyth co-directed this feast for the eyes and ears. The original Fiddler set (1964) used a revolving platform. Under the Smyths’ direction, a large cast — at least 25, maybe more — moves as if on one, and as buoyantly as Chagall’s clouds. So does Colleen Kollar Smith’s choreography: from hardy Russian bottle-dancers to Hassidic dervishes. And when the script calls for an over-the-roof image, as in “Tevye’s Dream,” the show delivers.
Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel (Charlene Koepf), must marry wealthy Lazar Wolf (gruff John Rosen) but is in love with Motel (Brandon Joel Maier), a poor tailor. When she convinces Tevye that love must trump tradition, he fears what his wife Golda (the excellent Deborah Gilmour Smyth) will say. So he falls asleep and dreams — nightmares, actually — that Wolf’s first wife, Fruma Sarah, rises from the grave and condemns a marriage with Tzeitel.
Next thing you know, the floor opens behind Tevye and Golda’s bed and up floats Sandy Campbell, and up and up, maybe 15 feet in the air, wearing a long white judge’s wig, trailing a tattered, grave-gritted white train, and singing a freaky-funny prophecy (the dazzling scene’s almost a parody of Angels in America: “Ancestors in Anatevka?”).
From individual voices to impressive choral effects, the production’s a treat throughout. Nowadays, when audiences leave a musical, they often complain there’s no song to hum on the way home. Fiddler’s the opposite: there are too many. People exit Lamb’s crooning hybrid-songs: “Sun-rise, Sun-set, swiftly flow the TRAW-DEE-SHOAN!!!”
- The image of a fiddler on a roof reflects Marc Chagall’s own life: son of poor Hassidic parents, he came of age near Vitebsk, a shtetl in Tsarist Russia. Fiddler is set in 1905 (when over 100,000 people died in purges; many of them Russian Jews). In 1907, Chagall left the village to study art at St. Petersburg. His religion taught that one could commune with God through music and dance. The fiddler allows access to the divine.
- Jews marrying outside the faith. Back in the 19th Century, a Czech nobleman fell in love with a Jewish woman from the shtetl in Prague. Their parents vowed to disown them if they married. They did. She died giving birth to a daughter. He died soon after, they said, of a broken heart. The daughter, raised by a poor teacher and his wife in the shtetl, was Marguerite Rosenberg, my father’s mother. ■
Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth; cast: Sam Zeller, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Charlene Koepf, Cattie Grady, Megan Carmitchel, Kerry Meads, John Rosen, Brandon Joel Maier, Charles Evans, Ernest Saucedo, Sandy Campbell, John Polhamus, Danny Campbell, Nicole Elledge, Jessica Couto, Apollo Blatchley, Jesse Abeel, Jason Heil; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Barnes Reith; lighting, Nathan Pierson; sound, Patrick Duffy; musical director, G. Scott Lacy; choreographer, Colleen Kollar Smith
Playing through July 14; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-6000