Horwood’s Fiddler on the Roof Leaves a Warm Glow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jerry Bock, Fiddler on the Roof: Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 01.10.2013 (SRT)

Fiddler On The Roof- c Tristram Kenton
Fiddler On The Roof- c Tristram Kenton

Tevye – Paul Michael Glaser
Golde – Karen Mann
Tzeitel – Emily O’Keefe
Hodel – Liz Singleton
Chave – Claire Petzal
Yente, the mathmaker – Liz Kitchen
Motel, the tailor – Jon Trenchard
Perchik, the student – Steven Bor
Lazar, the butcher – Paul Kissuan
Fruma-Sarah – Susanna van der Berg

Director and choreographer – Craig Revel Horwood
Orchestrator and musical director – Sarah Travis
Set and costume designer – Diego Pitarch
Lighting designer – Richard G Jones

I’m not sure how, but somehow I’ve managed to get to my mid-thirties without having ever encountered Fiddler on the Roof in any way beyond If I were a rich man.  Maybe I should be grateful, though, because I suspect my lack of baggage may have helped contribute to the fact that I found this new stage version of it an absolute delight.  While ostensibly set in a Russian Jewish village in 1905, Tevye’s story is, of course, a story in which we can all see ourselves as he struggles with challenges to the way of life he has always known and has to come to terms with new-fangled ideas, most obviously in the person of Perchik, the Marxist student from Kiev.  At its heart is the beautiful tale of Tevye and his family, be it his formidable wife or his attempts to find suitable husbands for his daughters.  What really lends the show its colour, though, is its extremely strong sense of community.  The Jewish setting gives it a very distinctive flavour, not only in the language but also in the music which is a clever blend of traditional Jewish and turn-of-the-century Russian, all moderated through the USA in 1964.  In this staging the village itself is brought brilliantly to life, with each figure given a distinctive personality, be it the dottery Rabbi, the curmudgeonly butcher, the nervous tailor or the larger-than-life matchmaker.

At the heart of the show are the performances of Paul Michael Glaser and Karen Mann as Tevye and Golde.  They’re very good separately but magnificent together, and their Act 2 duet Do you love me? was, for me, the finest thing in the show; poignant and witty but full of genuine fondness.  Glaser isn’t a great singer – none of his vocal numbers were top-drawer – but he embodies the character so convincingly through gesture, body language and movement that you forgive him easily.  Mann is even finer, radiating matriarchal warmth, and by turns waspish, affectionate and vulnerable.  The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent.  Tevye’s three daughters all come across as independent women but have enough character development to make them believable, and Liz Kitchen is an uproarious Yente.  Jon Trenchard charted Motel’s journey from the somewhat pathetic childhood friend to the strong-willed fiancé (and does it all while playing the flute!), and Steven Bor maintained Pechik’s status as an outsider through a touch of arrogance and his macho image.  Paul Kissuan gets Lazar on just the right borderline between sleazy and sympathetic, and Susanna van der Berg’s larger-than-life village matriarch was typical of the commitment that the actors brought to the minor roles.

Most impressively of all, on stage the singing cast also play the instruments that accompany the songs, a rather amazing feat that it’s easy to become blasé about because they do it so extraordinarily well.  It seems wrong to single anyone out, but I found the cor anglais solos in the Sabbath scene and at the start of the second act particularly moving, and the blend of Russian and Jewish style worked very well indeed.

The light-touch staging allows the different locations to glide in and out smoothly, and centres around a lovely doll’s house set for Tevye’s house, on whose roof the fiddler duly sits.  It all works very well and keeps up the pace so that a show that runs for just over three hours never once drags.

Surprisingly for a show directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, it’s relatively light on dance.  Instead Horwood focuses on the big moments, most impressively the tavern scene of the first act, and elements like the bottle dance at wedding are done with panache and an impressive degree of nonchalance from the cast.

All told, then, I found this show a joy from start to finish.  It made me reflect on the role of tradition and in our own lives and contemplate the rate of change we all encounter, but most importantly it left me with a warm glow that I carried all the way home and hope to hang on to for a good few days.  It continues at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until Saturday 5th October and then goes on tour nationwide.  Don’t miss it: it’s a triumph!  For more details click here.

Simon Thompson