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  • Angela Allyn

Epic Fiddler at Home at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Fiddler on the Roof is a story about a lost world, about a man on a hero's journey to navigate a brand new world, and it is a world that I have a familial connection to – so it was moving to me that the first image of the show is a modern child,(prodigy Drake Wunderlich) cast as the symbolic fiddler, forever perched riskily on the roof. Despite that image from a turn of a 20th century Chagall, this IS a story for our next generation. And the show begins to conclude with a heart wrenching Anatevka that made me sob for the lost millions of European Jewry. In between was a Fiddler as you may never see again, with a full orchestra and a cast of multitudes.

Based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the show had its origins in Yiddish Theatre. Arnold Perl produced an off Broadway version called Tevya and His Daughters as the world recovered from the Holocaust and came to reckon with the loss, and then Joseph Stein and Jerry Bock with lyricist Sheldon Harnick took on the project which opened on Broadway in 1964, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. While many thought the musical was too upbeat given the reality of shtetl (village) life and the horror of Russian pogroms, the musical became one of the longest running shows on Broadway, and it enjoys regular revivals and gets over 500 amateur productions a year. Having seen this musical since I was a child in both professional and community versions, and having watched the film version yearly, it was fascinating to me that my plus one opening night, a Brit with a theatre background, had never seen a production. Something about this immigration tale has made it a distinctly American musical, even if it is about life in the Pale Settlement of Imperial Russia.

Steve Skybell’s Tevye (a role he is reprising from Joel Grey’s acclaimed Yiddish production of the play) is a faith filled, heartful man. He is able to fill this giant role with compassion and energy. He is well matched with Debbie Gravitte’s Golde, a hardworking mom of five daughters (in a patriarchy where girls are valued less than boys). The marriageable daughters Tzeitel played by Glencoe native Lauren Marcus) Hodel (played by Austen Danielle Bohmer) and Chava (played by Maya Jacobson) create a dynamic family on a frontier of change. These are not women who are content with the status quo, and they will need every ounce of smarts and strength and skill for the century coming to them. The youngest daughters Shprintze (played by Estrella McCarthy Schultz on opening night) and Bielke (played by Omi Lichtenstein) still play around as children do but one wonders what their lives will be like when they immigrate to America. As each daughter pairs herself off for love (as Tevya notes: the new style!) they push the envelope for what is culturally acceptable.

Rufus Didwiszuz designed a set made of second hand furniture from Berlin. For my family, seeing Jews emerge from armoires is a powerful image and a reminder– the fact that they come from Berlin and may have belonged to Jewish families that went to the camps makes them eerie. Australian Director Barrie Kosky most recently served in Berlin, and carries the baggage of being a diaspora Jew into this production. He is partnered well by Broadway conductor Kimberly Grigsby who keeps everyone moving forward in a way that makes this almost 3.5 hour show feel like it's only an hour. Original choreographer Otto Pichler and revival choreographer Silvano Marraffa do amazing service to the Klezmer/folk reminiscent score by creating energetic dance breaks that honor Jewish folk dancing.

Everything about this production does justice to its roots and expresses the DNA of the story and how it reaches into the now– the area in which this story is set is today a battlefield, and refugees are once again fleeing part of the area that was the Pale. This is a story our children must see. Kosky has chosen to make this an epic– there are many moments when the entire village is on stage and so sacrifices the very personal aspects of the struggle, making personal choices seem more iconic than they must have been for the people who wrestled with making them, but this is a Fiddler for the ages. Don’t miss it. I personally would see it twice.

Fiddler on the Roof is playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive in Chicago's Loop for an exceptionally limited run: there are only 9 more performances before October 7 when it will be gone so rush to for tickets and information

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