Fiddler on the Roof Review: Lyrical Opera’s Revamp of Classic Musical Emphasizes Its Historical Reality as Well as Its Spirit
A very contemporary boy, with a bright green shirt, headphones and a scooter, rolls surprisingly on the stage of the Lyric Opera and stops in front of a double door. He opens them to reveal an unexpected and mysterious cupboard from which he pulls out a violin case.
He removes his headphones and turns off the throbbing music emanating from them and removes the violin and begins to play a familiar, seductive melody. Suddenly, there are several loud knocks inside the closet, and finally he opens the door to reveal Tevye, an instantly recognizable character.
Immediately, it becomes clear that this boy – Drake Wunderlich, a fifth-grade student who is one of the main concert band members of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras – is the violinist on the roof, a sort of time traveler, seer and narrator.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’
It magically takes audiences back in time to 1905 and the vast swathes of the Russian Empire and literally opens the doors to the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s bold reworking of one of Broadway’s greatest musicals. all time, “Fiddler on the Roof”.
This revival, which opened Saturday night and will run for 10 more performances until October 7, is the North American premiere of a production that debuted at the Komische Oper Berlin in Germany in 2017, and it is simply a triumph in every way.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is an inherently and wonderfully Jewish story, but its exploration of tradition and ritual versus modernity and change and its themes of family life and daily survival are universal and cut across cultures. ethnic cultures and national borders.
Director Barrie Kosky, who recently left the helm of the Komische Oper for a decade, sought to scrape away the patina of kitsch and sentimentality that has accumulated on this 58-year-old masterpiece and reveal its treasures. musical and its emotional core in an affecting new way.
This new approach is most clearly signaled by designer Rufus Didwiszus’ surprisingly (yes, that word again) original decors. Instead of the quaint, colorful village setting one might expect, the Anatevka shtetl is depicted in dark, faded grays with a backdrop that resembles a blurry black-and-white photo of a wintry forest, maybe taken from a pass form.
All of the action in the first half takes place around a spectacular, constantly repositioned wall of second-hand furniture purchased from stores in East and West Berlin, each room loaded with past associations and meanings. Figures pop up in old cupboards and wiggle up and down and in and out through this unlikely assemblage.
These sets, like the production as a whole, highlight the dark truth that is sometimes glossed over in some versions of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The Jews were people of the Diaspora for centuries, and they were relegated in Tsarist Russia to what was known as the Pale of Settlement, and, as the musical makes clear, they face a new violence and even more resettlement as the Russian Revolution loomed.
Indeed, the current rise in anti-Semitism across the globe, new waves of migrants in the Middle East and Africa, and a war unfolding in Ukraine over some of the same lands where shtetls once stood are only increase the relevance and power of this story.
But while this production unflinchingly shines a light on the historical reality behind “Fiddler on the Roof,” Kosky also pays abundant attention to the wit, tenderness, and even fun of the story. It injects movement and verve into the big production numbers, with top-notch dance tinged with tradition, originally choreographed by Otto Pichler.
The cast is superb from top to bottom, but at the center of it all is Tevye, one of the great characters of American theater – a hard worker, family man, popular philosopher and versatile mensch. Steven Skybell brilliantly brings it to life with the perfect combination of whimsy, depth and humanity and the right kind of big, all-encompassing voice to enliven his songs.
The show’s creators were keen to give each of the main characters a moment in the spotlight, and the actor-singers all enjoyed it, including Debbie Gravitte as Golde, Tevye’s wife; Drew Redington as Motel, the shy tailor, and Austen Danielle Bohmer as Hodel, one of Tevye’s five daughters.
There are many reasons why it makes sense for Lyric Opera to embark on a work like this, starting with the beauty and substance of the music. At the same time, the company is able to bring a scale to this production that simply isn’t possible in the average Broadway theater, including a 40-voice chorus, 18 lead actors, 12 dancers, and 24 actors. and extras – practically a theater shtetl on stage.
Conductor Kimberly Grigsby deserves considerable praise, making her operatic debut. and accordionist Ronnie Kuller.