Review: Topol in “Fiddler on the Roof”

Sunrise. Sunset.

Fiddler Cast 1 copy

Fiddler on the Roof
by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein
Thru June 28th at the Oriental Theatre

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

At its core, Fiddler on the Roof is a coming of age story, of Tevye’s daughters, of Tevye himself, of a people long acquainted with persecution.

Joy, heartbreak, and the ability to survive populate the Anatevka currently located in the Oriental Theatre. The big selling point for this North American tour of the classic musical is Chaim Topol, who has starred as Tevye around the world and in the 1971 film adaptation, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. His tried-and-true performance matches the rest of the production; director/choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes has recreated Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and direction  from the 1964 Broadway debut for the tour. Instead of some sort of theatrical museum piece, though, Tevye’s tale still comes across as fresh and thought-provoking even Fiddler Cast 2though our Chicago is thousands of miles and centuries away from rural, tsarist Russia.

Tevye and his family were first conceived and published in Yiddish in the late 19th Century by Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Sholem Rabinovich). Composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick (a Northwestern University alum), and writer Joseph Stein found the modern resonance in Rabinovich’s tales of family, joy, and hardship, which were long out-of-print by the 1960’s. The title of the show, however, was inspired by painter Marc Chagall. The surrealist paintings of the Eastern European Jew also inspired the sets for the original 1964 production, as well as for the tour. The resulting musical, thematically grounded in the tension between traditional values and the shifting tides of time, is a collection of old and new. On top of being shaped by traditional Judaism and radical 20th Century views, this tour has the added element of Topol, one of Israel’s most famous actors.

Fiddler Cast 3 It took me a few scenes to get used to Topol’s portrayal of Tevye. He makes some unexpected choices, trading in ferocity for the weariness of a poor old man. His ability to underplay the role won me over by “If I Were a Rich Man.” His comic timing and deep emotional arc all spring from a profound knowledge of the character. His rich, baritone voice grabs hold of the audience during the musical numbers, whether they are moving or celebratory. His understanding of the script also allows him to ad lib a bit. If left to his own devices, I suspect these would add another 20-30 minutes to the run time, but Bayes has cut them down to an acceptable level.

Although the musical centers around Tevye (as well as most of the advertising for this tour), it would quickly fall apart without strong supporting actors. Susan Cella’s Golde is powerful, living in a patriarchal society but still having control over her husband and family. The scenes between her and Topol are hilarious, and the number where Tevye asks his wife if she loves him 25 years after meeting him on their wedding day (“Do You Love Me”), is beautiful. The daughters, played by Rena Strober (Tzeitel), Jamie Davis (Hodel), and Alison Walla (Chava), do a fine job settling being daddy’s little girl Cella and Topolwith falling in love without the traditional matchmaker. Erik Liberman’s Motel is plenty geeky, and Colby Foytik as the radical student Perchik is sometimes too wooden, but is also able to use it for comic effect. The townspeople do an excellent job recreating a feeling of small-town life, where tradition is based on local gossip as much as the Torah.

Even though the staging and choreography was recycled from the original production, the strong performances and timeless script make this Fiddler on the Roof as touching as anything Broadway has to offer right now. Balancing traditional values with reality can be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof, whether in 1894, 1964, or 2009.

Rating: ««««

Running thru Jun 28th
Oriental Theatre
Box Office: 312-902-1400, or buy tickets online.

Ovation TV to begin 2-week long Broadway Festival with Hal Prince documentary

Starting June 6th, Ovation TV begins a two week, on air, Broadway Festival, where viewers can catch: “Mr. Prince,” the new documentary about the legendary Hal Prince in addition to performances of “Cabaret”, “Victor/Victoria”, “New York, New York” to name a few. They will also air other great programs in the Broadway series, including ‘Making of Phantom of the Opera’ and the documentary, ‘Annie” Life After Tomorrow’, which features Sarah Jessica Parker.  Here’s a trailer for this exciting documentary:

For a complete list of all the stage shows that Hal Prince has been involved in, starting with the 1950 “Ticket Please!”, where Mr. Prince served as assistant stage manager, click on “Read More”.

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Bea Arthur dies at 86

Though best known for her roles in “Golden Girls” and “Maude” (a spin-off from from All in the Family), Beatrice Arthur was also a talented and prolific stage actor, winning a Tony Award for best-supporting actress in the 1966 musical “Mame”, alongside Angela Lansbury.

Actress Beatrice Arthur accepting her Emmy award at the 40th anniversary of the Emmy's Arthur accepting the TV Land Award for Popular Culture on behalf of The Golden Girls Bea Arthur as "Maude"

From her obit:

Arthur was born Bernice Frankel in New York City in 1922. When she was 11, her family moved to Cambridge, Md., where her father opened a clothing store. At 12 she had grown to full height, and she dreamed of being a petite blond movie star like June Allyson. There was one advantage of being tall and deep-voiced: She was chosen for the male roles in school plays.

Bernice — she hated the name and adopted her mother’s nickname of Bea — overcame shyness about her size by winning over her classmates with wisecracks. She was elected the wittiest girl in her class. After two years at a junior college in Virginia, she earned a degree as a medical lab technician, but she “loathed” doing lab work at a hospital.

Acting held more appeal, and she enrolled in a drama course at the New School of Social Research in New York City. To support herself, she sang in a night spot that required her to push drinks on customers.

During this time she had a brief marriage that provided her stage name of Beatrice Arthur. In 1950, she married again, to Broadway actor and future Tony-winning director Gene Saks.

After a few years in off-Broadway and stock company plays and television dramas, Arthur’s career gathered momentum with her role as Lucy Brown in the 1955 production of “The Threepenny Opera.”

In 2008, when Arthur was inducted in the TV Academy Hall of Fame, Arthur pointed to the role as the highlight of her long career.

“A lot of that had to do with the fact that I felt, `Ah, yes, I belong here,'” Arthur said.

More plays and musicals followed, and she also sang in nightclubs and played small roles in TV comedy shows.

Then, in 1964, Harold Prince cast her as Yente the Matchmaker in the original company of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Arthur’s biggest Broadway triumph came in 1966 as Vera Charles, Angela Lansbury’s acerbic friend in the musical “Mame,” directed by Saks. Richard Watts of the New York Post called her performance “a portrait in acid of a savagely witty, cynical and serpent-tongued woman.”

She won the Tony as best supporting actress and repeated the role in the unsuccessful film version that also was directed by Saks, starring Lucille Ball as Mame. Arthur would play a variation of Vera Charles in “Maude” and “The Golden Girls.

Between series, Arthur remained active in films and theater. The plays included Woody Allen’s “The Floating Light Bulb” and “The Bermuda Avenue Triangle,” written by and costarring Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna. During 2001 and 2002 she toured the country in a one-woman show of songs and stories, “… And Then There’s Bea.”

Arthur is survived by her sons and two granddaughters. No funeral services are planned.

Tony-award winner Bea Arthur died at the young-at-heart age of 86.  She will be deeply missed in the TV and theatre world.

Bea Arthur and Rock Hudson: Watching the video below is like entering some gay bizarro meta-verse where carefree socialites harmonically chortle about amyl nitrate, and U.S. television networks broadcast it into your home. Except evidently at one brief, brilliantly weird point in history, this world actually existed. It’s but one more example of just how singular a figure Bea Arthur cut into the pop culture firmament, and why she’ll be so deeply missed.