Fiddler on the Roof

Airborne dancers during a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof,” now at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Saturday night was unusual at Lyric Opera of Chicago. After opening its 68th season with Verdi’s “Ernani” eight days earlier, Lyric swerved sharply away from opera, introducing as its second production of the season the popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein and based on stories written by Sholem Aleichem, “Fiddler”  premiered on Broadway in 1964 and has been a staple of musical theater ever since. The musical follows the story of milkman Tevye and his family eking out an existence in a Jewish shtetl called Anatevka in the early 20th century. The story concerns love, family and tradition. The first wins out in a big way, the second is sorely tested and the third takes a beating at every turn.

Most conspicuous to opera lovers and regular Lyric patrons was the fact that the evening was awash in microphones. Not long ago Lyric offered merch proudly proclaiming that its artists didn’t require mics, but in this “Fiddler” not only were principal singers amplified, but even occasionally sounds from the pit were too.

“Ernani” suffered from a lack of intimacy, even though the singing and the sets were grand and glorious, making it a lovely painting that sings. The actor-singers in “Fiddler” were superb at drawing us into their deeply personal moments, yet the amplification made it seem like a night at the movies, even if a glittering one, and not a rabbi’s mouse view where we actually feel we are there, spying on our neighbors. 

This production is the brainchild of Australian director Barrie Kosky, the creator of the bizarre production of “The Magic Flute” that appeared at Lyric last season. He has just completed 10 years as chief director of the Komische Oper Berlin, where this version of “Fiddler” debuted in 2017. In that same year, Kosky became the first Jewish director at the Bayreuth Festival, where he mounted Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Kosky’s great-grandfather left a village in Belarus rather like the fictional Anatevka, and in the program notes he makes this charming confession: “I’ve always had this slight fantasy that my great-grandfather was Tevye.” 

Set director Rufus Didwiszus has created a first act setting dominated by a huge stack of battered wooden furniture — tables, wardrobes and bureaus — jumbled into a sort of wall, putting you in mind of a thrift store backroom. Kosky sees this tableau of tables as a way of highlighting the way villagers were packed together in a small area. He inserts humor by having many entrances and exits through wardrobes, and he likes this idea so much that in the second act, which is a snowy outdoor expanse, there’s still a lone wardrobe incongruously sitting out in the open, much like Dr. Who’s Tardis, to bring folks into and out of the story. The lighting at times, however, is incredibly harsh, hurtful to your eyes and a big distraction from the storytelling.

Steven Skybell stars as Tevye, a man with a sharp-tongued wife and five daughters who insist on having their own ideas. Skybell is a fantastic actor who can create a carousing drunk one minute and turn around and then convince us he’s a thoughtful man speaking to God. Tevye’s gentle humor, family love and deeply held religious convictions shine throughout Skybell’s performance. He is an actor first, but with a solid singing voice. He shapes his sung lines in a way that is genuinely communicative if not always musically magical. Skybell has the stage presence and skill to hold your attention throughout the three-and-one-quarter hour performance.

The rest of the cast are similarly powerful actors, including Debbie Gravitte as Tevye’s wife Golde, Lauren Marcus as Tzeitel, Austen Danielle Bohmer as Hodel and David Benoit as Lazar Wolf. The singing overall is generally effective, even if pitch imperfections, lack of tonal clarity and a tendency to let the joke lines sound musically broad make the music far less pretty than it could be. 

Drake Wunderlich makes his Lyric debut as the vocally silent title character. This local fifth grader plays the violin so well — sweet, tender, wistful — that at first I assumed a kid so young must surely be merely acting as if he’s the violinist. But he’s the real thing and a young talent to follow.

Kosky’s “Fiddler” is less sentimental than most, and is no less convincing for that. But there are a few times when emotion genuinely seems lacking. For example, when Hodel (Austen Danielle Bohmer) explains to her father why she must go to Siberia to be with the man she loves, she sings in a natural and direct fashion, yet the one thing not present was the passion of the moment. It’s the difference between being interviewed by Judy Woodruff or Oprah Winfrey. Both will be illuminating, but only one is likely to produce emotional power.

The Lyric Opera Chorus added zest throughout with stellar singing that raised the musical quality of the performance considerably. The dancing was top-notch, with joyful moves that were visually stunning and dramatically potent. Conductor Kimberly Grigsby made her Lyric debut offering buoyant sound from the pit. Notable was the mellifluous clarinet that in klezmer fashion made music that embodies human emotion and expressiveness. Yet with amplification of the singers, the orchestra was pushed deeper into the auditory background than it should have been. 

The Anatevka of “Fiddler on the Roof” is an imaginary place in Ukraine. The current war and attendant migration for survival proves yet again that while this musical may speak to pre-revolutionary circumstances in Russia, it also speaks to us today, no matter who or where we are.

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