Last night Michael and I went with a friend to a production of Fiddler on the Roof, put on by Light Opera Works in Evanston. Teacher is in the orchestra for the show – she got us a deal on tickets – so the excursion had the distinction of being the first time I’ve ever seen her outside of my condo! The company puts on full-scale productions – Fiddler was noted for its full original orchestrations; apparently some artistic directors sacrifice some of the show’s music to get its three hour running time down to something more palatable for modern attention spans.
From the opening number, Tradition, to the heartbreak of the final scenes, this show delivers; I’m thrilled to report that there was a whole lot of talent on that stage and in the orchestra pit. The man who played Tevye was phenomenal – perfectly cast; his booming voice and large stage presence filled the pivotal role exquisitely. His tough/softy persona wins you over from the musical’s opening moments, and it’s his pain the audience experiences as the story plays out. His solo number If I Were a Rich Man did not disappoint.
In order to pull off this production, the supporting cast also has to be extremely talented – the choreography is quite demanding and complicated in spots – there’s practically an acrobatic act with bottles on four dancers’ heads as they do a jig in a feisty full-cast number. There’s dancing with brooms, a precision-timed moment when Tevye sticks a pillow between two cymbals behind him, and so much more – all of it was executed brilliantly. The daughters and their romantic interests were all very well-suited to their parts, and the matchmaker and butcher were also notable for their spot-on performances.
I was most surprised by the technical complexity of the production – they really put on a show. Parts of the set swing in from above, solidly constructed apparatuses wheel around the stage, a large backdrop projects a changing sky with clouds, the moon, and various realistic hues. The lighting effects and subtleties of stage construction and management work to well re-create a perfect Russian Jewish shtetl. The show’s most lavish special effects were saved for Grandma’s Ghost in the dream scene in which Tevye convinces Golde, his wife, that their oldest needed to marry a poor tailor rather than the rich butcher that Matchmaker had come up with. Add to the acting, singing, choreography, and technical merits the period costuming and full orchestra and I’d personally rank this show’s production values up there with some of the major Chicago companies.
I wrote a little bit about The Sound of Music a while back – as with that show, much of the tragedy of Fiddler was lost on me as a child. It’s not as if, even as a very young child, I was unaware of the indignities faced by Jews throughout history (though I must confess to, even now, knowing very little about their suffering at the hands of Tsarist Russia). But the Fiddler story is really one of triumph of home and family and of the binding power of culture, of prioritizing the most important things in life versus engaging in a battle with the wider world whose resources completely overwhelm those of the oppressed. As the rich butcher, Lazar Wolf, heads out of town he sums it up, saying of an uncle’s family he doesn’t particularly care for but with whom he’s going to stay in Chicago, “at least he’s family.”
I wish I could say go see it – but you’d have to hurry. I think today’s matinee might be the closing performance. I’m looking forward to future productions at Light Opera Works, and to other shows Teacher brings my way – she’s quite the worker bee.
Thanks for reading.