Review: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ brings classic Broadway charm to Richmond

Broadway's 'Fiddler on the Roof' comes to Richmond's Altria Theater. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

Rachel Poulter-Martinez, Contributing Writer

The show opened with the sound of a train as Tevye, a poor dairyman, and the fiddler took the stage. There was no bombastic overture; the show began with a familiar opening monologue and the simple sound of the fiddler. 

From Tevye’s first entrance, the audience was pulled into an iconic story of love, community and loss. When the final notes of the opening number “Tradition” played, the audience erupted into celebratory applause.    

The national tour of the “Fiddler on the Roof” took center stage at the Altria in Richmond from April 5 to April 10. The production thrilled the audience and joyously celebrated the iconic musical.

In challenging periods of time, it is comforting to return to the classics. The touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on the 2015 Broadway revival directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, is a warm and nostalgic embrace of classic Broadway. 

The show’s excellent casting helps establish a unique identity amongst its predecessors. Understudy David Arnold went on as Tevye, a poor dairy farmer, Tuesday night and brought an effortlessness to the role that was instantly charming. He plays the tension between a very tender, loving father and a traditional man of faith with such honest vulnerability and humor. 

In Tevye’s monologues to God, the audience watches Arnold wrestle with the very paternal struggle of weighing a father’s role and society’s traditions against his daughters’ happiness. 

Kelly Gabrielle Murphy, Ruthy Froch and Noa Luz Barenblat, stellar performances as Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava respectively support and deepen Arnold’s performance as Tevye. 

“Fiddler on the Roof” has a 1960s script, which unfortunately does not offer these young actresses anything to talk about aside from men and marriage. While that may not meet the modern standards of the Bechdel test, each young woman is uniquely strong and exercises agency in their love story.

The script very easily can fall into “ingenue syndrome” where the young women are pulled from place to place with few original opinions. However, the portrayal of the three eldest daughters keeps the women of the show from feeling two-dimensional. Murphy’s Tzeitel has a feminine strength and emotionality in fighting for the man she loves. Whereas Froch’s Hodel has a biting wit that draws her to her intelligent, progressive teacher Perchik, played by Solomon Reynolds. 

Barenblat played Chava with such kindness and vulnerability that it is genuinely heartbreaking when her father cannot support her love for the Russian gentile Fyedka, played by Jack O’Brien. Similarly, Maite Uzal, who plays Tevye’s wife Golde, brings a grounded strength to a character so often maligned as the nagging wife.

The show stumbled as it shifted to the heavy subject matter of Jewish displacement. The cast did an outstanding job of bringing joy and life to the more upbeat parts of the show, but did not offer enough space for the audience to sit in the discomfort of antisemitism.

“Fiddler on the Roof” is steeped in Jewish community and ideology, but the show also portrays the pain that many Jewish people across the world experience regularly. Thematically, the audience is supposed to feel uncomfortable in these moments, and it undercuts the message to not offer those moments the weight they deserve.  

Act one concludes with the wedding of Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest daughter, and Motel, the poor tailor she loves, played by Daniel Kushner. The wedding is a wholly Jewish celebration that is stopped and raided by Cossacks. The Russians destroy the bride and groom’s wedding gifts and turn the ceremony space upside down.

Perchik opposes the raid and tries to stop the destruction and is horribly beaten by the Russians. It is an incredibly important thematic moment in the show that demonstrates the brutality the Jews of Anatevka must endure purely out of antisemitism. The production seems to rush through this moment, and the fight choreography of Perchik’s beating feels far too dance-like to hold the level of significance it deserves.  

Similarly, toward the end of act two the Constable, played by Jason Thomas Sofge, demands that all Jewish residents of Anatevka must vacate within three days. The scene is playing out a devastating historical reality, and Arnold maintains an almost casual attitude as Tevye is expelled from his home. 

The audience seemed unsure if Tevye’s remarks to the constable were jokes in the face of mass displacement or commentary due to Arnold’s relaxed delivery. 

While these moments may have missed the mark, the show’s final scene is a stunning and moving final image. The show closes with Tevye donning a modern red coat as the entire company treks in a circle around the stage with all their possessions in tow. It is all too reminiscent of the countless refugee crises the world has witnessed over the past ten years. The cast and crew recognized the show’s relevance and dedicated all of their performances to the refugees who have been displaced in Ukraine.

Even with those shortcomings, the show lands the intimate moments between the family and the theatrical ensemble scenes with the whole company. Much of the direction and choreography is pulled or inspired by Jerome Robbins’ original Broadway production. Long-time Fiddler fans will love the classic choreography in ensemble numbers and should look forward to the classic bottle dance in “The Wedding Song.” 

Catherine Zuber’s costume design shines during the large dance scenes, with long-tailed coats creating playful movement as the ensemble spins and leaps across the stage.

The set was surprisingly simple and gave plenty of space for the cast to play. Key referential set pieces and drops gave aesthetic nods to Russian austerity but kept the focus on the actors and the narrative. While sparse sets can often make a show feel very abstract, the lack of substantial set pieces or flying fiddlers helped ground the work and make a large theater, like the Altria, feel intimate.   

Rising global antisemitism and the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine make “Fiddler on the Roof” an incredibly relevant and important story to tell right now. It is very worth seeing for both classic Fiddler fans and newcomers alike. It has classic Broadway nostalgia, grounded characters and a relevant message for today’s audience.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply