“Fiddler on the Roof”: a tale of displacement from long ago that is echoed today

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The cast is singing and holding glasses of alcohol
At center, Jordan Gelber as Tevye, Jeremy Radin as Lazar Wolf and company in Paper Mill Playhouse_s Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Mark S. Hoebee ©Jeremy Daniel
David R. Gordon as Perchik, Austen Danielle Bohmer as Hodel, Jordan Gelber as Tevye are standing on stage.
David R. Gordon as Perchik, Austen Danielle Bohmer as Hodel, Jordan Gelber as Tevye in Paper Mill Playhouse_s Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Mark S. Hoebee ©Jeremy Daniel

Headlines today tell of massive displacements of people in areas around the globe. The politics of hate toward the stranger among us results in physical and psychic injuries. Fiddler on the Roof, the musical now being offered at the Paper Mill Playhouse, relates one such displacement — of the Jews of Russia in the early 20th Century. It shows how a once close-knit community can be challenged, broken, and dispersed.

1964’s nine-time Tony® Award-winning musical, with the book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, is based on the “Tevye” stories of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem. Tevye (Jordan Gelber) is a dairyman in the Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, living with his wife Golde (Jill Abramovitz) and their five daughters. Tevye reacts to changes that often conflict with the strict traditions of the town, and he frequently converses with God on the whys of life.

The show opens with the Jewish residents of Anatevka, their community forming a literal circle of families and connections, each with their part to play (“Tradition”). There are traditional roles for fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters set out over the course of lifetimes. There are also traditional parts played outside the family: the matchmaker, the beggar, the rabbi and his son, the bookseller, the innkeeper, the butcher, the tailor. On the outer fringes are representatives of the Russian church and state authorities:  the constable and the priest. Traditions are the glue holding this community together, even if the original reasons behind them are lost to memory.

The first tradition to fall is the arranged marriage. A match is made (“To Life”) for Tevye’s eldest, Tzeitel (Alexandra Socha), with the town butcher, Lazar Wolf (Jeremy Radin). However, Tzeitel has pledged herself to her longtime love, tailor Motel Kemzoil (Etai Benson). Motel, finally standing up to Tevye, convinces him that a match between Tzeitel and himself is better for all concerned (“Miracle of Miracles”). Now, all Tevye needs is to convince Golde (“Tevye’s Dream”).

While the wedding unites the Jewish community (“Sunrise, Sunset”), the reception is anything but smooth. Lazar Wolf argues with Tevye. Yente (Suzanne Grodner), the town matchmaker, bemoans what she sees as losing her purpose in the community. Itinerant teacher Perchik (David R. Gordon) causes a minor scandal by dancing with Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel (Austen Danielle Bohmer). The celebration is brought to a halt with the arrival of the town’s police constable (Mark Campbell), following an edict to create a “small disturbance” that night.

Hodel and Perchik become engaged (“Now I Have Everything”). In doing so, they break the next tradition: asking the father for permission to marry before becoming engaged. Tevye gives his blessing as well as his permission – but wonders now how his own wife feels about him (“Do You Love Me?”). After learning of Perchik’s arrest and banishment to Siberia, Hodel leaves to be with him, promising Tevye they will be married under a canopy as Jewish tradition dictates (“Far from the Home I Love”).

Director Mark S. Hoebee and choreographer Parker Esse have done a good job, especially Esse’s reproduction of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, with their cast. Aside from the actors mentioned above, I want to point out two others of note. Maya Jacobson as middle daughter Chava and Andrew Alstat as Fyedka, a Russian Orthodox townsman, provide emotionally strong and believable acting as two people caught on opposite sides of a traditional wall of separation believed vital to their communities’ survival.

As for Paper Mill’s technical team, they provide a somewhat cleaned-up yet not unbelievable picture of the town of Anatevka. The scenic designs of Kelly James Tighe, based on the originals by Michael Yeargan and lit by Charlie Morrison and Jason Flamos, create a unified landscape of wood and earth tones. Leon Dobkowski’s costume designs are, for the most part, true to the workaday existence of all the inhabitants of the town, both Jews and Gentiles, but show a solemn beauty in the finery worn during the wedding scene. Jillian Zack leads a fine orchestra, but with some first-act mishaps in the flute and violin that disappeared from the second act.

Suzanne Grodner as Yente singing and holding her left hand in the air and her right hand is holding a bag.
Suzanne Grodner as Yente in Paper Mill Playhouse_s Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Mark S. Hoebee ©Jeremy Daniel

This production of Fiddler on the Roof is not quite as powerful as some other shows put on at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Still, it is very easy to see why it is considered one of the great classic musicals of the American theatre, possibly the last from the legendary Golden Age of Broadway. It retains its powerful plea for tolerance, its loving look back at old traditions now mostly gone, and its determined belief in perseverance as a survival technique for the oppressed. It is a show filled with love and an overflowing joy in living. For all this and a million reasons more – its lovingly recreated choreography and familiar music included – I urge you to end this year by making the trip to Millburn to see Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler on the Roof is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Jan. 7, 2024. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit papermill.org or call 973-376-4343.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.