Rich man, poor man: a ‘Fiddler’ for yesterday and today

Portland Center Stage reclaims the urgency in a familiar musical about "us" versus "them"

The fabulous bottle dance. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The fabulous bottle dance. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

A friend who is not the biggest opera or classical ballet fan on the face of the planet refers with puckish disdain to the musical stage’s seemingly unending enthusiasm for “happy peasants.” I’m not sure what he thinks of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the great Broadway musical based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories of life in the Jewish quarter of a Russian village in the late 1900s and early years of the 20th century. But maybe, in Anatevka’s case, he makes an exception. After all, the peasants in “Fiddler” aren’t just colorful patches of exotic background. They’re what the whole shebang’s about.

The peasants of this shabby little town are certainly happy, in an ingrown sense, feasting and working and loving and drinking and squabbling like there’s no place else on Earth, at least that matters. Left to their own devices, they could go on like this forever.

They are not, of course, left to their own devices. And, with a malevolent world crashing in on them, their happiness turns to despair, heartbreak, and exile. Yet even as he packs the remains of his family for a forced and uncertain journey to America, Tevye the milkman exudes a heavy-muscled and deeply ingrained endurance that is wedded to – well, not happiness, exactly, but a darkly buoyant and sustaining, and very Jewish, humor. Tevye is an optimist in spite of himself, and certainly in spite of the evidence of the world he’s forced to live in. And that optimism, which was both a liberalizing and a liberating force, helped lighten the story’s heavy load and turn “Fiddler” into one of the biggest-selling shows in Broadway history.

When “Fiddler” debuted in 1964, memories of World War II were still fresh in much of the audiences’ minds. So was the establishment of Israel. The horror of the Nazis’ “final solution” still ran deep in the collective psyche – the realization of just how far down a dark and terrible path a supposedly civilized culture can go when it allows its prejudices to be fully unleashed. The story of “Fiddler” brought home to a sensitized American public that had only recently begun to break out of its own isolationism (and that was struggling mightily, in the midst of the civil rights movement, with its own prejudices) that Hitler was an aberration only in degree: anti-Semitism was a centuries-long plague; the pogroms of eastern Europe were part of a pattern.

David Studwell as Tevye. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

David Studwell as Tevye. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The core of the musical’s story, Tevye’s great struggle, was how to define “us” as opposed to “them”: can a tight-knit group be so embracing as it rolls with the times that it loses its identity? “Fiddler” was one of a handful of works from Broadway’s postwar golden age – “South Pacific” and “West Side Story” were others – that fused song and dance with contemplations on the corrosive impact of ethnic and cultural suspicion. Their viewpoints were earnestly, and even bravely, liberal: the townsfolk of “Fiddler” may seem quaint and comic, but deep down they’re just like “us” (whoever “we” happen to be). Real differences were papered over, somewhat innocently, in an attempt to embrace the essential oneness of us all. The harder task, of course, is to embrace the other when the differences seem substantive – when, for instance, devout Christians and Jews and Muslims and unbelievers share the same territory and must learn somehow to get along with one another.

That’s one of the reasons I very much like Portland Center Stage’s new production of “Fiddler,” which opened Friday night on the Main Stage of the Gerding Theater at the Armory. Yes, the cast is excellent, and the design’s intriguing, and director Chris Coleman, a man with a deep feeling for the pleasures and possibilities of the musical theater, keeps the long story clipping at a brisk and rhythmic pace.

But in subtle ways, this “Fiddler” also emphasizes the differences, as well as the similarities, of life in Anatevka from our own. One way is simply emphasizing the town’s inwardness by paying attention to its inhabitants’ speech patterns: the clipped, ever so slightly disorienting pronunciations that the cast masters under the tutelage of the fine dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis. Another is through the trimmed-down orchestral accompaniment. Rick Lewis leads just nine players in the pit, and the sound they produce, while ample to fill the auditorium, is also sharper and janglier and more insistent than the familiar lush Broadway-orchestra sound. It’s tighter, more folkish, more ethnic – not klezmer, but a sound that suggests a distinct community. It’s an expression of a group that is happily apart, and would just as soon keep to its own ways, thank you very much.

David Studwell is a thoroughly satisfying Tevye, hitting all the high notes of an iconically familiar role but finding his own path into Tevye’s character. His discussions with God are offhand, half-ironic, more of a running comic monologue than a dialogue, and he often sidles into his speeches, with a casual, almost accidental-sounding beginning that gains full force as he continues. As Studwell plays him, Tevye really is the center of his community, both blessed and cursed with the ability to see another point of view. Studwell and the talented Susannah Mars as Golde, Tevye’s arranged-marriage wife of 25 years, have a nice sympatico and well-matched voices; this “Fiddler” is on the whole very well sung.

Among a large and capable cast of 28, a few others also stand out. Comic whiz Sharonlee McLean is a sharp-tongued riot in the dual roles of prattling matchmaker Yente and shrieking-nightmare Grandma Tzeitel (kudos, too, to the tech crew for Tzeitel’s rolling tower of power). Raymond Jaramillo McLeod is a big bear of a Lazar Wolf, the butcher, with a booming voice to match. Zachary Prince brings a nice shot of impatient energy to Perchik, the student/revolutionary who winds up with Tevye’s daughter Hodel (Sarah Stevens) in Siberia. Corey Brunish is dryly, shruggingly effective as the constable who carries out the czar’s cleansing orders so apologetically and clinically: he gives a shuddering foretaste of what the phrase “only following orders” would come to mean in Jewish history. And Tylor Neist, a pretty fine fiddler, wanders through the action like an energizing apparition.

Susannah Mars, center, as Golde. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Susannah Mars, center, as Golde. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Director Coleman and Kent Zimmerman, who reproduced Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, have made sure the set pieces (think bottle dance) have plenty of room to shine. And G.W. Mercier’s set, which breaks from the Chagall-inspired angles and colors of so many “Fiddler”s, is both epic and minimal, dominated by five towering wood-clad doors that swing open and shut as the action demands. I like the touch of sawdust on the floor – authentic for the bar scenes, and great for kicking up a storm during the dances.

Some stories are so familiar, such embedded parts of our cultural literacy, that they risk losing their potency: we almost overlook them. “Fiddler” is one of them, and in a time of intense sectarian and religious struggles in the Middle East and elsewhere (let alone the red-and-blue cultural battlefield of our own increasingly polarized country), Center Stage’s production has gone a good way toward restoring a share of its urgency. In a way, “Fiddler” seems like an Ur-story, filled with other possible plays that might spring from it, although to my knowledge they haven’t. Lazar in Chicago. Motel and Tzeitel in the Garment District. The Sweet Revolution of Perchik and Hodel. Chava and Fyedka: The Trials of Forbidden Love. It’s a tribute to Aleichem’s stories and Joseph Stein’s book for the musical (the splendid songs, in case you’ve forgotten, are by Jerry Bock, and the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) that all of these characters still seem real, if maybe a little exaggerated, and that we wonder what comes next in their lives: their stories seem unfinished. In the meantime – miracle of miracles – this lovely story’s unfolding right here and now.

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Portland Center Stage’s “Fiddler on the Roof” continues daily except Mondays through October 27. Check here for schedule and ticket information.

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