Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester – until 2 September 2017
Any large scale production of Fiddler on the Roof is always worth a visit. In 1972 the show capped Broadway’s Golden Era by becoming New York’s (then) longest running musical and it has continually retained a global affection for its charming yet honest depiction of Jewish life in the small Russian village of Anatevka at the turn of the 20th century.
So with Daniel Evans settling in as Chichester’s Artistic Director and building upon the acclaim of recent years for his Sheffield revivals of Show Boat and Anything Goes (both 5* raves on this site), has he achieved the same glory with his shtetl shtick? The answer is, not quite.
Omid Djalili steps up to the pivotal role of Tevye the milkman. Married to Golde and with 5 daughters (3 of marriageable age) Djalili captures a hen-pecked, hardworking weariness of the poor pious family man who dreams of maybe, just a small fortune. Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics deserved their 1965 Tony. His perceptive writing captured not only Tevye’s grappling with the conflicting forces of progress and tradition, they also masterfully caught his humour, his despair, his pride and above all his love for his wife and daughters.
Djalili is first and foremost a comedian and as a lookalike for Zero Mostel (who created the role on Broadway) he’s unmatched. If you’ve seen those classic images over the years of Tevye, prayer-shawl whirling, dancing in ecstasy to If I Were A Rich Man, or To Life, then Djalili more than delivers.
But whilst he does serve up most of what makes a strong Tevye, Djalili fails to grasp the essential self-deprecating irony that underscores much of Jewish humour and also mangles moments that should be of the deepest pathos. As his younger daughter Hodel leaves him to journey to fiancé Perchik, banished to Siberia, she says to her father that “God alone knows when we will meet again”. The moment should be a heartbreaker, but amidst overplayed steam train sound effects and a rushed speech, Djalili mutes the tragedy.
Opposite Djalili, Tracy-Ann Oberman makes her musical theatre debut as Golde and it shows. Whilst she convinces as a deeply loving mother, Oberman’s singing is lacklustre. And what on earth was Evans thinking when he instructed her to speak with a cod-Russian accent?
Elsewhere though there is theatrical magnificence. Emma Kingston and Louis Maskell as Hodel and Perchik are quite simply a committed and passionate delight. Their growing love is tangible and one only wishes that the libretto could have offered Hodel more of a solo platform to enjoy Kingston’s perfectly weighted voice.
There is solid work too from Jos Slovick’s Motel, with Gareth Snook turning in a decidedly creepy Lazar Wolf, the widowed old butcher with an eye for Simbi Akande’s Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest, as his next wife.
Tevye’s Dream is a delight. Amidst a whirl of trap doors and cranes, Mia Soteriou’s Grandma Tzeitel makes us chuckle affectionately, while Laura Tebbutt’s brilliantly camped up cameo as Fruma Sarah will stay with me for a long time. Marvellous stuff as high above the stage, Tom Brady’s 14 piece orchestra make fine work of Jerry Bock’s luscious score.
So while Chichester’s flawed Fiddler may not be one for the purists, it’s still a finely executed piece of musical theatre. And for those who’ve never seen this Broadway classic, Daniel Evans’ production is a must-see.