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Who or what is the eponymous fiddler on the roof? Tevye, the struggling milkman at the heart of the musical, points out the precariousness of the violinist’s position: “Without our traditions,” he says, “our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” And given the ropy condition of the roofs in Tevye’s poor village in tsarist Russia, this is a heartfelt simile.
But the fiddler surely also stands for the optimism and resilience of the Jewish people. And this is the spirit of this bittersweet show: it salutes the defiant adaptability of the persecuted Jews. Little point complaining, then, that for a piece about ethnic cleansing it has a rather jaunty air and that the villagers, when thrown out of their Russian shtetl in a pogrom, strike up another song. The dark undercurrents are there all the time, but Joseph Stein’s book, Jerry Bock’s music and Jerome Robbins’ joyous choreography aim to celebrate that spirit.
Lindsay Posner’s cracking production catches both the chutzpah and the poignancy of the show, emphasising what is good (the catchy songs, the uplifting choreography, the humour) and shrugging off the infelicities (some pretty thin characterisation and corny lines). On Peter McKintosh’s slatted wooden set, the story of Tevye and his feisty daughters, who defy tradition to marry for love, is played out with infectious warmth. Henry Goodman, as Tevye, is superb. His beard may be grizzled and his boots worn, but his nimble step and twinkling eyes suggest plenty of inner fire. He is very funny as he grumbles away to God or imagines a yard of noisy geese to advertise his wealth in “If I Were a Rich Man”. But he is also immensely touching when events prompt him to ask his wife shyly if she loves him. He needs to keep a lid on his performance in places, though, or he will end up with the fiddler on the roof.
There is fine work from the three daughters (Frances Thorburn, Alexandra Silber, Natasha Broomfield), and the set pieces, such as the amazing bottle dance at the wedding, bring the house down. And I defy anyone to keep a dry eye in the ensemble’s touching rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset”.
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