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Fiddling with Tradition 

My Jewish great-grandmother emigrated from Russia toward the end of the 19th century. She was to be the bride of a Russian Jewish man already in the United States. To the shock and amazement of the rest of the family, she proclaimed she was an atheist. 'If there was a God," she explained, 'he would not have permitted the things I saw." She was talking about the brutal pogroms, in which Jews were beaten and killed and their property destroyed.

That violent shadow falls on the village of Anatevka in the Fiddler on the Roof, which recently got a deft production at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center. This unlikely musical (book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) originally opened on Broadway in 1964 and went on to set a record with an almost eight-year run.

The show opens appropriately enough with the fiddler of the title " an icon of the spirit that has kept this race going somehow in a hostile world since the Romans drove them out of Israel 2,000 or so years ago. But the play is not about the fiddler per se any more than A Streetcar Named Desire is about the New Orleans transportation system. Fiddler tells the story of Tevye, a poor milkman, and his six daughters. Six unmarried daughters and no dowry, Oy Gevult!

Tevye, played with magnificent panache by Randy Cheramie, is not quite a rascal. He means well. In moments of crisis or pique, he complains directly to God, like one might complain to an older brother. During most of the story, Tevye has to pull around his own milk cart because his horse has thrown a shoe.

At the end of the hilarious and deservedly famous song about the airs he and his wife, Golde (Meredith Long) would put on, if they had the necessary loot, Tevye sings: 'Lord who made the lion and the lamb/ you decreed I should be what I am/ would it spoil some vast eternal plan/ if I was a very wealthy man?"

Aside from his poverty and his unmarried daughters, Tevye has another problem: 'Tradition" (praised in the opening song number), or to be more precise, the unraveling of tradition. Traditional ways of dressing, acting, eating and everything else are what gives this little Jewish community its identity. 'How do these traditions start?" Tevye asks, rhetorically. 'I'll tell you ... I don't know." Maybe the mysterious origin of the time-honored customs increases their taboo-like power. One thing is certain, however; change is threatening.

So, how do you marry off your daughters according to tradition? With the help of Yente, the matchmaker (Janet Shea), of course. For a fee, she sizes up the situation and brings the parents to some sort of agreement. It's the parents, after all, who make the arrangement.

Tevye's oldest daughter, Tzeitel (Morla Gorrondona) is the most immediate marital problem. An elder, wealthy butcher (Judge Sol Gothard) asks Tevye for Tzeitel's hand. Tevye agrees. Bravo. One problem solved. The soon-to-be father-in-law celebrates with his soon-to-be son-in-law by singing and dancing. Even some Christians in the tavern join in. Unfortunately, the girl wants to marry her heartthrob, a poor tailor named Motel (Scott Sauber). In short, she wants to decide her own destiny instead of submitting to the will of 'The Papa." This hairline crack in the surface of tradition grows into a chasm as the play progresses.

Furthermore, the Christian constable (Bob Scully) has some bad news. Other Jewish villages are being cleared out. Trouble is brewing. In fact, the joyful wedding of the young couple is disrupted by Cossacks, who break things and beat up Jews.

Other daughters rebel. Hodel (Meredith Lee Hotard) falls in love with a young radical (Dwayne Sepcich) from Kiev, and when he's arrested, she joins him in Siberia. Then, horror of horrors, Chava (Jennifer Marks) elopes with a Christian (Taylor Miller). This transgression, 'The Papa" cannot forgive. His daughter, he says, is dead to him.

Finally, the ax falls on the little town of Anatevka itself. The Jews are exiled. They scatter in different directions. Tevye (like my great-grandmother) heads for America. The fiddler, as a bittersweet harbinger of hope, follows them on their way.

Perry Martin directed this remarkable revival that featured a cast of 24 and a chorus of 33 " probably about the size of the population of the real Anatevka. In any case, the multiplicity of roles makes it impossible to single out more of the outstanding performances. A tip of the hat to choreographer Tara Brewer, musical director Donna Clavijo and conductor Alan Payne for giving an easy intimacy to this epic.

click to enlarge In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye (Randy Cheramie) tries to maintain traditions during changing times.
  • In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye (Randy Cheramie) tries to maintain traditions during changing times.
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