Saturday, December 16, 2023


NOTE TO READERS: I saw the opening night production of Fiddler on the Roof on Sunday, December 10, and expected to write my review on Monday, December 11, to post that day. Well, after 3.75 years of evading the coronavirus, COVID got me and put me out of commission for the entire week. Hence, my tardiness. Feeling better, I offer this assessment of the Paper Mill Playhouse’s production.

By Ruth Ross

This month, almost 60 years after it opened, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical proves that theater, that subversive art, has something to say about the state of the world.

Indeed, the Paper Mill Playhouse’s current production, Fiddler on the Roof, highlights two situations prominent in today’s news: the plight of refugees forced from their homes by violence and the rising tide of antisemitism.

Based on short stories by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, the play transports us back to 1905 to the little shtetl (Yiddish for "village), Anatevka, in the Russian Pale of Settlement on the eve of the revolutionary period in Russia. There, hapless, impoverished milkman Tevye endeavors to marry off three of his five dowry-less daughters and keep peace in his house, while maintaining the traditions practiced for centuries by Orthodox Jews. However, the revolutionary spirit threatens more than just the Czar!

This production, helmed by Director Mark S. Hoebee, marks the first time Fiddler has been seen on the Paper Mill stage in 40 years. The wait was worth it. The expansive stage pulsates with emotion and energy, with dancing villagers (nimbly executing Jerome Robbins’ original choreography reproduced by Parker Esse—the "Bottle Dance"—right—is breathtaking), menacing Cossacks, dewy-eyed lovers and, of course, Yenta the matchmaker, the town busybody whose plans to marry off Tevye's eldest daughter Tzeitel sets the tale in motion.

's success depends upon casting an actor who can pull off the role of Tevye; onstage for much of the time, he is the linchpin of the production. Hoebee has found the quintessential actor for the part: Jordan Gelber, who, with his beard and portly physique looks the part. His world-weariness is palpable every time he sighs “Oy!” or raises his fist to excoriate God for sending him tsuris (trouble) at every turn. Gelber sings and dances very well, and his comedic timing is spot on, which makes his monologues very funny and the dream he cooks up to get out of the marriage agreement hilarious. I only wish that he had acted the lyrics of “If I Were a Rich Man” more emotively, rather than singing through the melody.

Jill Abramovitz’s portrayal of his wife Golde is equally superb. She embodies the exasperation felt by a long-suffering spouse of a man who does pretty much as he likes; we are always aware she is the one who really rules the roost. Abramovitz and Gelber are especially touching in their duet, "Do You Love Me," as they attempt to sort out their feelings for each other.

Alexandra Socha’s Tzeitel (left, center) is sweet and shy; she and her beau Motel the Tailor (played with adorable timidity by Etai Benson) exude radiance as they celebrate the "Miracle of Miracles" that Tevye has agreed to their match. As Hodel (right), Austen Danielle Bohmer’s voice is strong in "Now I Have Everything," her duet with David R. Gordon as Perchik, and her poignant farewell, "Far from the Home I Love," sung as she departs to join him in Siberian exile, brings tears to one's eye. Maya Jacobson may not have much to sing as Chava (far left), but she performs a graceful and touching ballet as Tevye bemoans her loss in “Chavele.”

Other standouts include Jeremy Radin as rebuffed suitor Lazar Wolf and Suzanne Grodner (right) as a splendid Yente, the Matchmaker, alternately kvetching and kvelling (complaining and beaming with pride) as she shares her great wisdom with anyone who will listen—or not.

Perhaps most unsettling is the sense of danger evident early in the action. During a celebratory night of drinking in the local pub, with Tevye and Lazar Wolf toasting to “L’Chaim, (To Life)” the Russians join in affably at first, but get louder and more menacing, taking over the dance floor and edging the Jews out of the way. The friendly Russian Constable offers Tevye a word of warning that comes true in the penultimate scene where he orders the Jews to leave their homes within three days or risk violence.

Kelly Jame Tighe’s scenic design transports us to Anatevka, with its wooden houses, all sharp angles and many-paned windows, some of them floating above the stage like a Marc Chagall painting. Leon Dobkowski’s costumes befit poor Jewish shtetl-dwellers and fearsome Russian Cossacks; Charlie Morrison’s lighting gives us lovely sunrises and blue skies that belie the dark clouds on the horizon. My only gripe is that the “Sabbath Prayer” is sung at sunset, yet the lighting was too bright. Jillian Zack’s musical direction hits the right note; the orchestra accompanies the singers without overpowering them. (Left: Alexandra Socha and Etai Bensen celebrate their engagement)

Fiddler may tell the story of a lost world, but the universality of its themes makes it a favorite of audiences of all ages (although the Playhouse cautions that it’s not for children under age 8). It's hard not to tap your toes to the sprightly rhythms, remark that not much has changed vis à vis parent-child relations, and yet feel a chill run down your spine when you realize that people are still being driven out of their homes to live somewhere else.

Fiddler on the Roof reminds us that those coming to our borders are real people, with families, hopes and dreams, often fleeing bigotry. The Paper Mill Playhouse’s production is both entertainment and a wake-up call. In that way, it accomplishes what Theater was invented to do: to communicate ideas.

Fiddler on the Roof will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through January 7, 2024. For information and tickets, call 973.376.4343 or visit online or visit the box office.