My maternal grandmother, when she was just 12 years old, was placed in a hay wagon among a group of strangers and was sent from her small village of Mikhaelevka, in the Ukraine, across northern Europe to Hamburg, where she boarded a boat for America. She was all alone, with her name on a tag pinned to her coat, and without a word of English. In America she joined her older sisters, sent one by one before her, but she never saw her mother or her older brother again. According to family apocrypha, her father, by then a widower, eventually joined his seven daughters in America, married again, and fathered a second family.
I am reminded of this poignant history whenever I see “Fiddler on the Roof,” and while I am always charmed by its vivid depiction of shared community life in the Russian shtetl, Anatevka, I am most struck by its inevitable ending. The village broken up, its inhabitants dispersed, presumably never to meet again. And the resultant break with Jewish traditions that was only to be accelerated in the next century: arranged marriages superseded by the demands of love, daughters and sons marrying out of the faith, and new wives following their husbands to far-flung outposts, away from things familial and familiar.
All of this is part of “Fiddler.” But so are the joyous and plaintive songs, the boisterous dances, the rueful philosophy of Tevye, the milkman who yearns to be a rich man, and the befuddlement of his practical wife, Golde, who never considers whether she loves him or not until he demands that she think about it. If these weren’t our grandparents, who were? At any rate, it’s the way we like to imagine them.
And so to Topol, the Israeli-born actor who has given us Tevye the milkman’s story some 2,500 times. The musical, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, was written by Joseph Stein, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. The original Broadway stage production in 1964 was directed and choreographed by the legendary Jerome Robbins, and won him two Tonys for his work. The current production at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, directed and choreographed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, duplicates Robbins’ original version.
Ironically, it wasn’t Chaim Topol who opened “Fiddler” on Broadway, it was Zero Mostel. But Topol quickly made the role his own when he opened the show in London’s West End in 1967. He subsequently starred in the 1971 film, for which he won a Golden Globe, and he has played the role consistently all over the world and in revivals in London in 1983 and on Broadway in 1990. (Other notable actors who have played Tevye include Herschel Bernardi, Theo Bikel, and Leonard Nimoy.)
This Pantages appearance is billed as Topol’s Farewell Tour. Now 73, but trim and lithe as a 30-year-old, his voice as strong as ever, Topol will play in Los Angeles through Aug. 9 and then move on to venues around America until May 2010. After that, presumably, he will return to his books (he has written two and illustrated 25) and his Jordan River Village, a campground in the lower Galilee region of Israel for children with incurable and life-threatening diseases.
Joining Topol as his wife, the bossy Golde, is Susan Cella, a luminous member of the cast of 35 that sparkle onstage as the quirky citizens of Anatevka. All with magnificent voices and the energy to dance through this three-hour musical marathon. Mary Stout is outstanding as Yente the Matchmaker, and Rena Strober as Tzeitel, Jamie Davis as Hodel, and Deborah Grausman as Chava, the older three of Tevye and Golde’s five daughters, are all beautiful and multi-talented. And so are the men they choose to marry: Erik Liberman as Motel the Tailor, Colby Foytik as Perchik the Revolutionary, and Eric Van Tielen as Fyedka, the Russian soldier.
It’s really hard to sit still or keep from singing along with all the familiar songs as conductor David Andrew Rogers directs the orchestra through “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were A Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and all the rest. The wildly enthusiastic audience, however, manages to divert that impulse to sing and dance by clapping in time to the music at every opportunity. And the marvelous Arthur Atkinson, as The Fiddler, is a show all on his own.
Steve Gilliam’s scenic design is also a show all on its own. With wooden houses that swing open, revolve, and sometimes swivel across the stage, the scenery is nearly as active as the players. The lighting design by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz adds nice time frames to the days and Tony Ray Hicks’ costumes are authentically poor and drab. No Tsar and Tsarina outfits here!
It really doesn’t matter how many times you’ve already seen “Fiddler on the Roof,” this production is worth a 16th visit. And it’s your last chance to see Topol as Tevye. So, who could resist?
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 9 at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. at Vine St. Call (800) 982-2787 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This review can also be found at www.airsla.org/broadcasts/theater_reviewsrss.xml.