It's a kind of ethnic 'all-change' at the Savoy Theatre as the all-black cast of Trevor Nunn's 'Porgy and Bess' have now moved out, and the Jews of pre-revolutionary Russia take up residence with 'Fiddler On The Roof'. In a sense, it's quite appropriate that these two shows should be following each other at the same theatre. Not only do these groups have much in common, but the shows have similar, universal themes including poverty, dignity in the face of adversity and racism. And even the sets for the two shows share some similarities with wood being the predominant material, here used again in Peter Mckintosh's massive construction, complete with rotating centre piece that provides the vehicle to take us from exterior to interior scenes.
'Fiddler On The Roof' started life back in 1964 on Broadway with Zero Mostel in the lead. It opened in London's West End in February 1967 starring Topol (full name Chaim Topol) who also headed-up the cast of the 1971 film. This current revival hails from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, where it started its run in November last year.
Since it's birth, 'Fiddler' has played around the world, underlying the universal appeal of its unsettling and troubling themes. For example, it's apparently well-loved in Japan, even though there is only a tiny Jewish population there.
The show is based on Shalom Aleichem's stories about his life in a poor Jewish shtetl (a small town) in Southern Russia. The central character in the show is Tevye, a poor milkman who has 5 daughters, a wife with a vixen's sarcastic tongue, and whose horse isn't fit enough to pull his milk cart. In spite of his poverty and the austerity of his environment, Tevye maintains a cheerful approach to his dealings with family, his neighbours and his God – who he addresses throughout the show more as one of his neighbours than an immutably omnipotent force to be feared.
As the opening song declares, the Jewish community of this poverty-stricken shtetl are steeped in tradition, and it's the coming of change that strikes at the heart of their long-established values and mores that provide stability and coherence. Change is personified not only by the Tsarist authorities, who bully and harass the Jewish community, but also by the Jewish children, who seek to side-step tradition by determining their own future and opting to marry for love rather than on the whims of their parents.
Henry Goodman takes up the reins from 'Topol' as Tevye, and provides the essential, charismatic focal point to carry the whole show through successfully, well supported by a vocally confident and highly capable cast. Goodman's cheery nature is stretched to breaking point as three of his daughters in turn flout his authority, but he maintains the delicate balance between anger and humour, as he weighs-up the arguments for and against change. Goodman's singing voice is rich and powerful, and more than adequate to meet the challenges of the songs. His rendition of 'If I were a Rich Man', though perhaps not quite reaching the definitive mark set by 'Topol', is touching and emotive.
The songs in 'Fiddler' are not only well-known, but have the kind of melodic strains that are typically found in other American, high-quality musicals. I'm not sure that this is entirely due to what is described as the 'Jewish minor scale', but there is a haunting resonance in this score that tugs at the heartstrings. And many of the songs - such as 'Tradition', 'Matchmaker', 'If I were a rich man', and 'Sunrise, Sunset' - are extremely well-known and immensely hummable.
Although Lindsay Posner's revival is faithfully accomplished, well-rounded and generally extremely laudable, the two halves of the show itself are somewhat imbalanced. The first act has all the best songs, and is overly long at almost 2 hours - some judicial pruning might not have gone amiss. And though the second half has the touching poignancy of the Jews being evicted from their homes, packing-up and moving on, it feels less musically satisfying, even given the immense talent of the vocalists and a well-balanced orchestra under the baton of Jae Alexander.
Essentially, 'Fiddler On The Roof' deals with the impact of social and political change on ordinary families and communities, as much as the consequences of unsavoury political prejudice and expediency. In that sense, it has a timeless quality that enables it to deliver a strong message while entertaining with its appealing melodies and captivating storyline. So, some 40 years on, it's still well worth seeing.
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Mature, heartfelt, impeccably executed revival." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "superb production." LYNN GARDENER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Long, overblown revival does little to make a case for this old-fashioned musical." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Fine revival."