There were numerous valuable takeaways from “Gender and Jewishness in Fiddler on the Roof from the 1960s to the Present,” one of the final lectures in the three-week-long “To Life!” Jewish tradition symposium at Davidson College. A couple of them carried over immediately on Sunday afternoon to the Theatre Department’s current production of Fiddler on the Roof, offering me a fresh perspective on the matinee performance.
One of these, brought out by Professors Stacy Wolf and Jill Dolan from Princeton University, was that Fiddler represented a landmark coming-out for American Jews, who largely respected and carried on their Judaic traditions but refrained from putting them on exhibit for the general public. After all, how many views of traditional Jewish practice made their way into the American zeitgeist between The Jazz Singer and Fiddler?
Jerome Robbins, the director of the original 1964 Broadway production, famously called upon the writing team of composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and playwright Joseph Stein to add an opening song to their creation so that the actions of Tevye, his daughters, their suitor, the village of Anatevka, and the Russians under whose rule they lived would all be properly contextualized. But it wasn’t just these people who were introduced in the contrapuntal strands of “Tradition,” it was also the rudiments of Judaism.
From the outset, Fiddler wasn’t exclusively a Jewish domain, though the towering performance of Zero Mostel as Tevye could make you think so. So it was sobering to watch a New York Times video during the lecture presentation that showed us a latter-day portrayal of a fully liberated — but obviously neurotic — Jewish woman in the recent off-Broadway production of Bad Jews. To these trained ears, which have been exposed to a Yeshiva education and Chasidic grandparents, the actress in the clip sounded more Italian than Jewish, a collection of neurotic mannerisms on loan from Moonstruck and Woody Allen plus a badly mimicked New York accent.
Thanks to this off-Broadway specimen, I was far more inclined to overlook the tone-deaf elements of Ian Thomson’s portrayal of Tevye down here in Davidson. Thomson’s cadence is also far more Italian than Jewish — or Russian — and his badly-coached interjections are more like the tee-hee chirps of Smurfs or Keebler elves than the authentic oy’s of the long-suffering Chosen People.
Thomson’s other shortcomings can be traced to his inexperience as an actor and a dad, the universal pitfalls of a college effort. Otherwise, it’s a testament to the sturdiness of Fiddler and Tevye that Thomson still remains quite satisfying by singing well, adapting to Ann Marie Costa’s direction, and putting a sincere effort into surely one of the great musical roles.
So much of Bock’s music, directed ably here by Jacquelyn Culpepper, fills in the spirit of the Jewish shtetl and its traditions when the students fall short. I daresay Joe Gardner’s set design, including poster designs that descend from the flylofts at strategic moments, is the best I’ve seen for a Fiddler production in the Metrolina area. Eric Winkenwerder’s lighting design effectively spotlights Tevye’s moments of crisis and inner conflict, isolating them from the ebb and flow of the other action. Jamey Varnadore’s fine array of costumes and Emily Hunter’s choreography also splash the grand Duke Family Performance Hall stage with authentic color.
Costa is at her best when she can sculpt scenes like the husband-wife “Do You Love Me?” duet with Haley DeLuca as Golde and Thomson. The “Tradition,” “To Life,” and “Dream” ensembles are all spectacular, additional affirmations that a good Fiddler isn’t all about Tevye. Of course, none of the other performers needs to be nearly as prodigious as the iconic Dairyman, so Thomson and DeLuca are capably surrounded.
Erin Tate as the eldest daughter Tzeitel, Madeleine Saidenberg as Hodel, and Brooke Brazer as Chava demonstrate the new generation’s progressively more radical departures from Tevye’s ideas about family, tradition, love, and religion. The suitors are differentiated just as tellingly, with Robert Kopf as Motel the Tailor, Spencer Ballantyne as Perchik (the revolutionary student), and Karl Wold as Fyedka (the Russian student).
In the stunning staging of “The Dream,” Hannah Lieberman gets to upstage everyone as the ghostly Fruma-Sarah. Although nobody has clued Clarise Fischbach Ballesteros that she shouldn’t be waiting for an answer each time Yente the Matchmaker intones “Right? Of course, right!” she’s delightfully decrepit in every scene she butts into.
Fiddler on the Roof isn’t merely a cultural touchstone. It’s a masterful chronicle of a bygone world on the brink of modernity, destined to disappear. It's worthwhile for the whole family. The Davidson students in the audience seemed to be enjoying it more than anyone.