I would probably be hard-pressed to find someone who has no familiarity with Fiddler on the Roof – but somehow – I’ve never seen a live production before Tuesday night at the Ordway in downtown St. Paul. It was also the first big show I’ve seen since the pandemic began which automatically made the whole evening special. The show itself was just a part of the overall experience for me, watching the variety of people mill around. While I personally love dressing up, I appreciate the accessibility of people being able to come as they are. I saw everything from flannel and overalls to fur and sparkly masks.
While I had a basic idea of the storyline, a poor man with five daughters to marry off, Fiddler has always been an ‘old’ show and not one I would go out of my way to watch. Yet, I found myself surprised that it felt less outdated than I anticipated. I think they tried to show its modernity by having the actor who played Tevya start and end the play in contemporary clothes reading a book as if he was reading the tale that he was participating in. I did not catch at the beginning of the show that the jacket was modern, simply that it was red and, I thought, a huge costume mistake. It was unnecessary for me. By the second act, I was really focused on watching Tevya’s reaction to losing his position of power within his family. While he may have affection and respect for his wife, it was pretty obvious she was not part of the decision-making process for him, even after he gave his daughters’ feelings consideration. I imagine plenty of people have written about the dynamics of the character’s roles within patriarchy so I won’t do so here.
Perhaps it’s because most of the shows I’ve seen in recent years are produced by high schools, it was bliss to hear such well-trained voices filling the space with life. Ruthy Froch has a beautiful voice and it was well showcased as Hodel in the famous ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ song. Playing villager Sasha, Alex Stone held a note during the tavern scene that gave me chills. There were only one or two moments when the vocals and microphones didn’t coordinate and became almost screechy and I couldn’t understand the words. My favorite scenes were both in the first act: first when the family welcomes Shabbat. I loved the realism of hurry and stress getting ready for Shabbat Maite Uzal as Golde portrayed and the use of prayer and ritual to transition into the quiet and peace one hopes for in their day of rest. The other was the wedding. I held back from yelling mazel tov as the glass was crushed and noticed there were members of the audience who clapped along to the dancing as if they were at a friend’s wedding.
The set was fairly sparse, the barn being the most impressive when it came to physical items on the stage. When I tell people I love a big splashy musical, I assume they think I’m talking about elaborate sets with a flashing marquee sign or pyrotechnics. In truth, the simple sets are almost always my favorites. Theatre is magic and I like being asked to use my imagination as an audience member. There was never a point where I didn’t know where we were, a simple swing of a door frame helped us move from inside to outside and back as needed. There was the subtle use of a light pattern on the floor when Hodel and Tevye wait for the train; it might have represented the windows, or train tracks to ground us in location or a representation of the jail and future she was heading toward. I love that I get to decide which it was to me, or that I even get to contemplate it.
Most of us don’t break out into song and dance on a regular basis and those of us who do usually can’t manage to get everyone around us to join in, perfectly choreographed of course. Musicals aren’t realistic, and for me to accept that suspension of disbelief I want those songs to have perfect timing. I want the vocals and movement and light cues to all work as if it really did just happen spontaneously. For a show I was expecting to be underwhelming, it had all the elements of what I love in a musical. I enjoyed the show and thought it was a great way to spend the third night of Hannukah.
Fiddler on the Roof is playing now through Dec. 12 at the Ordway. Get your tickets at ordway.org; use the code TCJ when you order tickets, and get 15% off, valid for the shows on 12/2-12/3 and the 12/5 evening performance.