Encore Michigan

Fiddler On The Roof breaks with tradition at Wharton

Review December 06, 2018 David Kiley

EAST LANSING, Mich.–You’re taking a risk when you decide to change a classic. Even the smallest of changes can be met with cries of outrage and controversy.

This is especially true when you take something as iconic as Fiddler on the Roof, a musical that is 54 years old and is performed in every community theater and high school around the country.

The Fiddler on the Roof, which is touring the country and currently at the Wharton Center in East Lansing, is based on the 2015 Broadway revival featuring some new original choreography by Hofesh Shechter and direction by Bartlett Sher.

It isn’t an entirely new show. The music, lyrics, and book are the same. It’s still telling the same story, but Sher paints darker tones, removing all the bombast and telling a very serious story about an oppressed people who must make difficult decisions about what helps them survive as a people and as individuals.

Perhaps the most obvious change is the beginning and the end where the actor playing Tevye first enters the stage in modern dress, interacting with the fiddler in a way that bridges time and emphasizes the universality of the story. Yes, it takes place in the early 1900s of Imperial Russia, but the story of oppression belongs to every time and every place.

Shechter did a beautiful job of combining Jerome Robbins’ original choreography with his new one, giving it an Israeli flair that made the show feel less American than the original. The ensemble numbers were a joy to watch—and there is so much going on that it is a feast for the eyes, with plenty to take in no matter where you look.

The casting was also more true to the script—with Tevye and Golde being much younger than the original Broadway stars.

During the week at Wharton Center, Danny Arnold played Tevye, and his dairyman was a very down-to-earth, wise sort of man. It’s a different interpretation than the book the musical is based on where Tevye is somewhat of a fool, or the original Broadway version where he is bombastic and over-the-top. This Tevye is a leader among his neighbors, beloved by his daughters, and someone who has a comfortable relationship with his maker.

While the lower-key Tevye doesn’t work as well in songs like “If I Were a Rich Man,”  Arnold is highly relatable in other scenes and has a strong voice that blends well with the others in the ensemble.

Maite Uzal plays the overworked Golde. She is especially amusing during the dream scene and she and Arnold bring a loving and realistic take to the “Do You Love Me” song.

Ruthy Froch gives Hodel a beautiful amount of spirit. She is an apt sparring partner for her eventual mate, Perchik, played by Ryne Nardecchia. The two of them beautifully show the tension between wanting to change tradition and being willing to fight and sacrifice so that their people can continue to live the lives they’ve always known.

All of the actors contributed to making their characters more relatable, more down-to-earth, more familiar to today’s audiences. It all fed back into the director’s choice that “Fiddler on the Roof” would transcend its period. In a show about traditions, the production would not itself be slave to its origins. Rather, it would keep the faith, while changing with the times, much like Tevye had to do with each of his daughters.

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