REVIEW: Fiddler On The Roof plays a delightful tune

A scene from Fiddler On The Roof
A scene from Fiddler On The Roof

A revolutionary activist arrives from Kiev telling of unrest and warning that you cannot ignore the changes that are going on in the world outside. For a musical that was written 50 years ago, Fiddler on the Roof certainly rings a few bells with modern times. But that’s not why I think you should go and see it.

If you think a night in the theatre should move and uplift you then, if you can, get a ticket. It’s on at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday, April 26, 2014.

It is an inventive and inspired telling of the tale of Tevye, a poor dairyman living in Russia at the turn of the last century. It stars Paul Michael Glaser (yes that’s right over-40s, Starsky from Starsky and Hutch) and he plays the role with warmth, humour and a bit of a twinkle in his eye.

The show opens with, unsurprisingly, a fiddler. On a roof. Tevye explains the meaning. The fiddler is simply trying to scratch out a pleasant tune without breaking his neck. Just as Tevye and his neighbours in the settlement of Anatevka are trying to do with their lives. He says: “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!”

And so off we go on this tale of the battle between the urge to keep traditions and have things remain as they are and the sometimes inevitable and sometimes cruel changes that are foisted upon them.

Tevye’s initial problem is that he has five daughters and no money to pay dowries for them. Not that the eldest three have trouble finding husbands, it’s just that it doesn’t work out in the traditional way.

When eldest Tzeitel, played by Emily O’Keeffe, chooses the taylor instead of the matchmaker’s recommendation of butcher, Tevye is pushed to go against tradition. When second daughter Hodel, played by Liz Singleton, doesn’t even ask for his permission but rather seeks his blessing for her choice he thinks he has been pushed as far as things can go and goes along with this too. But when Chava, played by Claire Petzal, chooses to marry a non-Jew and goes ahead with neither his permission nor blessing he is pushed too far.

There are touching performances from all three actresses who develop on stage from innocent youngsters to grown women faced with heartbreaking choices.

One of the most delightful things about the show is that the orchestra is not in the pit. The characters themselves are the orchestra, arriving on stage with a clarinet here, an accordion there. A rabbi with a bassoon. It’s extraordinary how the cast can be dancing, singing, speaking and then an instant later playing their instruments too. A great feat of creative planning by choreographer and director Craig Revel Horwood and musical director Sarah Travis. When they all play together popping up from different parts of the jigsaw of a set, it’s glorious.

There are some great songs in the show. Obviously If I Were A Rich Man has taken up residence in my brain ever since, but there were other highlights too such as Matchmaker and the poignant Sunrise Sunset.

One of the best scenes for me was Tevye’s dream sequence in which he tricks his wife into allowing Tzeitel to marry the taylor rather than the butcher, by making up a tale about a dream he had in which the butcher’s late wife appeared from beyond the grave to warn them off. Susannah Van Den Berg in the ghostly role commanded the scene, swooping up and down, her operatic voice ringing out with words of foreboding.

The entire ensemble have created a show which brought sadness and laughter together in a way that was moving and at times simply made me smile. They did much more than scratch out a pleasant tune and no-one broke their necks.