This is not the first large scale production presented in the young life of Durham’s magnificent Performing Arts Center but it can serve as the promise fulfilled for the cultural life of Durham, the Triangle area and the entire state. This opening night of the six-day run of Fiddler on the Roof was a resounding artistic success and also showed that a healthy percentage of the nearly 2800 seats can be filled – even on a Tuesday night.

Fiddler first opened on Broadway in 1964 with Zero Mostel* in the starring role of Tevye, but it was the young Israeli actor Topol (Chaim Topol), appearing in London’s West End production in 1967 and later starring in the 1971 hit film, who defined the role and shall forever be inextricably linked with this classic of American musical theater. After having performed the role of Tevye more than 2500 times, Topol, at the age of 73, is now on a victory lap final tour. Although the music, lyrics, book and dance stand on its own as one of the all-time musical gems, it is invariably the draw of seeing this legend for the last time that is attracting audiences in record numbers to this tour – despite, or perhaps because of, the dire economic situation. 

Fiddler is a story that resonates on many levels and presents, in varying comical and quite serious scenes, profound questions that have and always will confront us. Tevye, his wife Golda (played by Susan Cella), and their five daughters live in the tiny Russian village of Anatevka in Russia in 1905. A poor milkman struggling with questions of faith, the conflict of tradition vs. modern ideas, the impending pogroms of the Czar and how to get his five daughters married off, Tevye constantly talks to and questions God – sometime quite angrily – “would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?”

The opening scene hits the mark with the full ensemble singing “Tradition,” the call to respect and live our life according to what has been passed down to us by our forefathers. From there we meet Yenta the matchmaker, who is being threatened with the outsourcing of her business by the crazy notion that young women be allowed to marry for love and actually choose themselves whom they marry. This threat, and the rapidly changing world, along with the encroaching and imminent displacement of Jews from their village are the main threads of this timeless story. The very lengthy first half (one hour, 45 minutes) contain most of the great songs of the show, including “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” and a stunning scene featuring the tearjerker “Sunrise, Sunset” where Tevye laments the passing of time as he watches his oldest daughter Tzeitel get married to the tailor Motel.

The masterful musical score by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick certainly need no further high praise, but it is the dance sequences that are perhaps the most neglected aspect of Fiddler. This production reproduces Jerome Robbins’ choreography from the original Broadway presentation and it follows the tradition set by Oklahoma to use dance as an integral part of the story line. There were several remarkable large dance scenes, many using traditional Russian folk dance as their base before branching out to modern variations of stupendous athletic vigor.

Although the ending is not quite as tragic as its Broadway predecessor West Side Story, the second half of Fiddler is far from a “lives happily ever after” conclusion. The issues are monumental, real, and even contemporary: forced removal from your home and land; possible loss of faith; forgiveness; dissolution of the family and rapidly changing times. Although Tevye is able to grudgingly agree with his two oldest daughters’ marrying for love without the use of a matchmaker, when his third daughter Chava marries outside their Jewish faith he chillingly pronounces, “she is dead to us.” The play ends with what remains of his family and their meager possessions thrown off their land and packed for a trip to America.

I was in New York in January and went to two Broadway musicals, and I can tell you without hesitation that this touring production, especially with Topol, is far superior to anything you can see in the Big Apple at this time. The scenery was portable but authentic and effective. That along with the meticulously designed costumes gave you a real feeling of being in a small, primitive village. The orchestra played as if this was a new venture (although they’ve played the score hundreds of times) and special recognition needs to be given to accordionist Sasha Luminksy who added “old world” charm to the proceedings. Forget the horrible news of the day, splurge a bit and take the entire family for a three hour escape to Anatevka, circa 1905.

*Corrected 3/19/09. An earlier edition listed Theodore Bikel, who was famous in the role, but Mostel created it on Broadway.