Editor’s note: Since this review was originally published on November 19, it has been revised in response to readers to whom we are grateful for bringing to our attention an inadvertently insensitive subtitle.
“TRADITION…TRADITION!” Those words, in the opening prologue of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, stir emotions. Director Peter Flynn’s Fiddler, now playing at the Olney Theatre Center, stirs its own set of emotions in 2023: as a thought-provoking, competent, and yet confounding staging of a timeless classic.
This is the story of Tevye, a milkman in the village of Anatevka who struggles to provide for his family and is guided by Jewish traditions. Tevye and his daughters remain the focal point of the story throughout — as each daughter chooses to marry for love in relationships Tevye finds difficult to accept.
Fiddler on the Roof is also the story of Jewish life in Russia at the turn of the 20th century; as such, amid a tale of love and tradition, it is also about religious persecution, pogroms, and the expulsion of Jews, which adds to the gravitas of the story. Flynn’s production of Fiddler, in a significant departure from the original, sets this story at Ellis Island — where it unfolds via flashback, and where it ends — to emphasize his perspective that this is a story of all immigrants.
Howard Kaye as Tevye effectively handles the sarcastic banter of this legendary role (in one memorable scene, he humorously questions the tailor’s worthiness for his daughter). He is musically best in songs like “If I Were a Rich Man,” where the veteran actor handles Harnick’s fast-paced lyrics admirably. Kaye, however, lacks the commanding presence and voice that a quintessential “Reb Tevye” demands. He harnesses the humor but not the heartbreak of this legendary character.
Fiddler has 23 different roles, and strong among the many on stage at Olney was Noah Keyishian as the student Perchik. Keyishian emotes with conviction; it is believable that he would cross the barrier to dance with women at Tzeitel’s wedding. Rachel Stern as Tevye’s wife, Golde, is a wonderfully loving and angst-ridden Jewish mother. Sophie Schulman as eldest daughter, Tzeitel, shows tremendous vocal chops. And Chess Jakobs as Lazar Wolf, the wealthy butcher who wants to marry Tzeitel, is striking for how he balances the pride and indignity of this character.
Graciela Rey, as The Fiddler, possesses considerable talent as a dancer. Yet Flynn unfortunately does not commit to a clear role for her. She is on rooftops, pirouetting in musical interludes, one of the bottle dancers at Tzeitel’s wedding, and dancing solely with Tevye in another scene. This decision to make her a focal point of this production unnecessarily steers attention away from the main characters on stage.
That said, Flynn is to be commended for the creative team he has pulled together. Choreography by Lorna Ventura incorporates traditional Jewish dance, most wonderfully in moments of joy like the iconic “To Life” and “The Bottle Dance” at Tzeitel’s wedding. Scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon crafts different wooden sets with height and authenticity. Her work meshes beautifully with Max Doolittle’s lighting design in the first act’s “Sabbath Prayer,” with candles in dimly lit windows as a stunning backdrop to the stage. Doolittle’s lighting, overall, is a mix of subtle and striking spotlights — particularly in the closing scene as the cast walks through the light of doors into the new world of America.
Flynn’s production features a diverse cast; cast members are African American, Japanese, Ecuadorean, and of other ethnic backgrounds. It is a production, per an Olney press release, with “an eye toward the global shtetl.” Olney effectively showcased a plus-sized African American Belle in its 2022 production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and here again recognizes the importance and necessity of diverse casting.
Olney’s challenge with this casting for this particular show, however, is that Fiddler on the Roof, based on the stories of the Yiddish playwright Sholem Aleichem and the first commercially successful show about Jewish life in Russia, is a point of cultural pride for many Jewish people.
Flynn’s perspective — which emphasizes that this is the story of every culture, in every part of the world — is a thought-provoking one. That perspective is at the core of a production that makes a number of unconventional artistic decisions — from larger-scale choices like the role of The Fiddler, the diverse casting, and setting the play on Ellis Island to details like placing a tallit on the female actress playing The Fiddler (a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, is traditionally reserved for men in orthodox Jewish communities like the one Fiddler depicts) and the fact that you do not hear a glass being broken during the musical’s wedding scene.
This is an enjoyable production of Bock and Harnick’s classic play; it is also a complicated one, and at times, uneven. It considers a Jewish play and asks whether it can be a universal story. Credit the Olney production team for sparking this conversation, and consider what ‘TRADITION!’ means to you.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Fiddler on the Roof plays through December 31, 2023, at Olney Theatre Center, Roberts Mainstage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($39–$95) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm – 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students (for details click here).
The program for Fiddler on the Roof is online here.
COVID Safety: Face masks are recommended but no longer required to attend events in any Olney Theatre Center performance spaces.