In a world torn by technological change and political instability, one cherishes traditions. This is as true today as it was in the time of the Russian tsars, and it's one reason why 'Fiddler on the Roof' is a perennial hit with audiences around the world.
Chemainus Theatre's first-rate production -- well cast and beautifully interpreted and acted -- brings to life the joys and trials of a Jewish family in a village in tsarist Russia a century ago. You don't have to be a father to understand Tevye, whose daughters are determined to marry men of their own choice, breaking with the tradition of the father's prerogative and a matchmaker's advice.
A small thing, you say. But it foreshadows the tumultuous political changes which uproot not just a family but entire villages, as pogroms force out the Jewish people.
Just as the practical and delightful Tevye accepts, to a degree, the changing mores of marital matters, so too does he adjust his sails to cope with the shifting political winds. It's a lesson for us all when he and the others say: "Well, let's get packing, then. This place was no heaven in any case."
Today we might have to move on in other ways, such as by learning to use a computer, or a new type of phone, or by leaving our home for a care facility. The lesson remains the same: the old way was good, and we treasured it; but we will move on, for that is the nature of life.
Such is the wisdom of this great musical.
Fiddler on the Roof is based on 'Tevye and his Daughters,' or 'Tevye the Milkman' by Sholom Aleichem. The title is an analogy or symbol. As you might imagine, playing a violin on a rooftop is fraught with risk, just as life was precarious for many in the little Jewish villages. A sudden breeze could topple the fiddler, just as the tsar's capriciousness could send the villagers packing.
Stephen Aberle is Tevye -- strong yet flexible, firm yet funny, traditional yet thoughtful. In a fortuitous alignment of the stars, Aberle's actual daughter Rachel was cast as Tevye's eldest girl, Tzeitel. Besides acting, she also played the cello, and does both with panache.
The music in this production is also first-rate, excepting an occasional squeak and squawk from the oboe and clarinet on opening night. Reeds are difficult to keep moist when played only sporadically as was the case here, and that likely accounts for the flubs. Norma Bowen as Yente, Tevye's wife of 25 years (they met for the first time the day they were wed) is equally at home on this stage. The entire cast earned a standing ovation Friday night.
This was the first of their 96 shows in the little mural town. More than 100 costumes are involved and about 17 professional actors, the largest number ever for Chemainus.
"Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do," Tevye says in the opening scene.
This causes one to wonder: Is excessive choice complicating and hurting our own lives? In a society with moral relativity and few set standards, would we be better off with more traditions? I say yes to both questions.
You can reach your own conclusions after watching this superb production.
Fiddler on the Roof runs until Sept. 3. Call 1-800-565-7738 for tickets.
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