For a moment there, it looked like we were going to have a high-concept, postmodernist “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Director Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Broadway revival, whose tour production finally landed in Minneapolis on Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre, begins on an empty stage. There, Jewish milkman and protagonist Tevye (charismatic Israeli screen star Yehezkel Lazarov) reads a holy book as he looks up at a sign announcing his village, the Russian shtetl of Anatevka, where the action takes place in 1905.
That stage bit immediately gives way to forcefully exuberant group dances as the large cast sings “Tradition.” All of this suggests that this is not going to be your grandparents’ “Fiddler” — defined by Jerome Robbins’ 1964 original that won nine Tonys and director Norman Jewison’s 1971 film, which won three Oscars.
But soon enough the show returns to its traditions with the tech crew at the Orpheum flying in props for the village. We’re thrust in the middle of the poor milieu with well-known characters who grind out their lives with wit and sincerity even as forces beyond their control encroach on their lives.
Sher’s “Fiddler” does a nice job of maintaining convention for a beloved show while managing to feel contemporary.
The director has bracketed the classic musical by composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and book-writer Joseph Stein with new introspective moments at the beginning and end of his production. He also hired Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter to update Robbins’ dances. Shechter has brought a certain edge to the traditional folk moves. The bottle dance seems dangerous. And he has infused some of his moves with quotes your teen will recognize, including the Nae Nae.
An origins story, “Fiddler” orbits Tevye, who is devoted to his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal), and five daughters, and who dreams of wealth (“If I Were a Rich Man”). He is a progressive figure for his era. At a time when people ask why should a girl learn to read, he hires a university student to tutor his daughters.
This student, Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia) has some notions that are considered radical, like the idea that a woman should choose her spouse instead of having one picked for her by a matchmaker or her parents. Tevye’s daughters Tzeitel (Mel Weyn) and Hodel (Ruthy Froch) give him conniptions with their picks of partners but he eventually relents. But third daughter Chava (Natalie Powers) falls in love with a Cossack, who is outside the faith. For Tevye, that’s a bridge too far.
All the interpersonal crises come against a backdrop of pogroms to dispossess people of their property.
One of the questions that surrounds “Fiddler,” and most classics, is whether they hold up in the #MeToo era. After all, many of these shows reproduce sexism and other -isms. The creative team has blunted these qualms by giving us a Golde with an even sharper-than-usual tongue, and by muting Tevye’s macho edges.
The result is a production that’s emotive, heartwarming and deeply satisfying. True, the first act, which comes in at an hour and 40 minutes, takes its luxurious time. But the performances, and the music, conducted by Michael Uselmann, make it well worth it.