I booked this on the strength of its being a fine old musical that I haven’t seen for many years – and Mrs Chrisparkle has only ever seen the film, on which, if truth be told, I don’t think she’s that keen. But it was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourites, and I have happy memories of learning to play all its top tunes on the piano when I was a teenager, at her behest. My piano playing style was always… direct, I think would be a complimentary term; my friends used to call me “Thumper” when it came to the keyboard. Many’s the evening where I would thump out melodies such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “If I were a Rich Man” to my heart’s content. I actually remember in my very early days of theatregoing how all my parents’ friends and relatives would go overboard with excitement about seeing this show in London, starring Alfie Bass. He was their hot ticket. I never saw Alfie Bass; but I did accompany the Dowager to see the show at the Apollo Victoria in 1983 starring the legendary Topol. She absolutely loved it.
All these recollections came back to me as we waited in our excellent seats at the Royal and Derngate for what has turned out to be the penultimate week of this national tour of Fiddler on the Roof starring Paul Michael Glaser (yes, Starsky) and directed by Craig Revel Horwood. Not inappropriately for a show that is shamelessly sentimental, it made me feel somewhat, as the poet once said, totes emosh. When I was that teenager banging out showbiz tunes on the Joanna, I remember wondering if I would ever get to be old enough for the, what I considered at the time, self-indulgently naff lyrics of “Sunrise, Sunset” actually to have any significance for me. Well, forty years on, I can tell that arrogant teenager that yes, when you’ve survived this far, it touches you more than you could imagine.
Anyway, I’m digressing before I’ve started. It was a packed house for a midweek evening performance of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s long-lasting and not remotely dated musical, which chalked up 3,242 performances on its original Broadway run (making it the longest running show at the time) and also a highly respectable 2,030 performances on its original West End run. Joseph Stein’s book is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Milkman, written and set in what is now Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Broadly speaking, we’re talking the Russo-Jewish change agenda of 110 years ago. It’s set in a place (the small Russian village of Anatevka) and at a time (1905) when local traditions and practice were being uprooted on a political, national level, as shown in the heartless pogroms against the Jewish towns and villages; but also on a personal, familial level. Tevye’s firmly rooted in his “Tradition” values, where it’s the Papa who decides which of his children will marry the person the Papa chooses. However, Tevye’s three daughters have other ideas, and it’s the lengths to which Tevye manages to compromise, or not, with his strict religious and societal beliefs that provides the plot development of the show. As a result, you get to run the gamut of emotions all evening long, as we experience with Tevye and his family their friendships, love, hopes, fears, hatred, joy, sadness, and more. It’s all there. As the “disturbances” against the local Jewish community get progressively more violent, their options for survival get more limited. Hence the fiddler on the roof herself weaves in and out of the action, a symbol of irrepressible quirky spirit and continued precarious danger, played with impish charm by Jennifer Douglas. No wonder it’s a three hour show.
You have to hand it to them, this is one terrific production. Diego Pitarch’s set is perfect for the job, with a central revolving pod that can serve as the outside of Tevye’s house and can also open up to reveal the internal living areas; and to the sides of the stage two static structures that can be Motel’s workshop or the entrance to the inn. It folds back completely to host the wonderful “To Life” scene at the inn. The costume designs accurately reflect the workaday nature of the locals’ lives and their level of poverty – hard up, but not without income and provisions. In what is becoming something of a trademark approach with a Craig Revel Horwood production, there isn’t a separate, remote band, but the on-stage actors all play orchestral instruments as well as performing their roles. This has a great unifying effect, as you appreciate the skill and creativity of all the people you can directly see on stage. Individual instruments also become additional voices for their associated characters, and it works a treat. It is so much more successful here than in Mr Horwood’s production of Chess where the instrument-playing cast members just got in the way of the action and ended up blocking all the best views. Musically, the show is a complete treat – the orchestrations are perfect and the performers create some really gutsy sounds from their instruments – for instance, Michael Paver’s trumpet playing and Susannah van den Berg’s clarinet really stood out.
But of course the show is all about Tevye. In fact it’s hard to name a musical with a more dominant central character, so any production of Fiddler on the Roof could succeed or fail on the strength of one performer. Well, there was no need to worry on that score. Paul Michael Glaser is an astoundingly good Tevye; thoughtful, reflective, gently self-deprecating, and thoroughly realistic. It would be easy to go over the top with caricature, funny accents, and silly physical comedic gimmicks in this show, but Mr Glaser sets the tone perfectly with his naturalistic, warm, and wry characterisation. He creates an instant rapport with the audience – who very nearly broke into a star applause welcome when he first appeared (but just held back) – even occasionally connecting with patrons in the front stalls when he’s seeking agreement or confirmation with his mind-musings. There’s no denying it, Topol was great, a marvellous entertainer and charismatic performer; but where he could occasionally drift into caricature and become slightly ridiculous (think of the body swagger in “If I Were a Rich Man”), Mr Glaser just acts like a genuinely kind, straightforward old man, cherishing his dreams, putting his family first. And what a voice he has! Rich, full, strong; a perfect match for those classics he has to sing. It’s not the voice of a 71 year old man. Starsky 71? No wonder I’m feeling old!
He has a great connection too with Karen Mann as his wife Golde, enjoying the subtle “long-suffering” act that any husband does about his wife if he has a third person watching. However, her long-suffering responses are the more genuine, confirming, if you were in any doubt, that us men are generally much harder to put up with overall. Their “Do You Love Me?” duet was a sheer delight, her batting off his attempts to wallow in self-praise, his refusing to be thwarted. It was a very funny, but loving scene, beautifully performed.
There are plenty of other fantastic performances to match the central characters. Emily O’Keeffe’s Tzeitel is a splendidly responsible oldest daughter, ostensibly attached to her parents’ traditional values – but she will have you holding back the tears when she begs not to be married to Lazar. Liz Singleton is a self-assured and spirited Hodel, responding bravely to Perchik’s tradition-breaking advances and following him in his latter exile; and Claire Petzal is a charming and coquettish young Chava when first approached by Fyedka, but surprisingly and sadly resolute in her ability to withstand her father’s disapproval. All three sing stunningly – their “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” was exquisitely performed, a marvellous testimony to the optimism of youth.
I really enjoyed Jon Trenchard’s performance as the nervous but gradually more confident Motel, withering visibly as he tries to tell Tevye that he wants to marry Tzeitel, proudly displaying his sewing machine more than his baby, and giving us a genuinely joyful rendition of “Miracle of Miracles”. Steven Bor makes for a suitably radical Perchik (the role played by Paul Michael Glaser in the film), mischievously incorporating Bolshevik views into his tutoring but proving himself to be as drippy as any lovesick boy imaginable when Hodel accepts his humorously business-like proposal.
Liz Kitchen is a delightfully meddlesome and gossipy Yente the Matchmaker, always failing to mask quite how self-obsessed she is; Eamonn O’Dwyer makes an amusing if unexpectedly camp Innkeeper, as well as a polite but ruthless Police Constable, Neil Salvage a hilariously woolly Rabbi, Daniel Bolton a dignified Fyedka, and Susannah van den Berg a wonderfully scary resurrection of the late Fruma-Sarah, hovering over Tevye and Golde’s bed like a flying operatic bat.
There’s only a few more days left to catch it at the Derngate, and then a week at Eastbourne before it wraps up for good – for a show this enjoyable, it would be a crime to miss it. Great to see it still commands a big audience, and it reminds us, through the medium of musical comedy, of a harrowing time in history that must not be forgotten.