THEATER | “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Orpheum: L’chaim, Topol!

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Chaim Topol’s name is no more separable from his Fiddler on the Roof character, Tevye, than Adam is from Eve. Over the past four decades, Topol has re-created the old mensch on the stage countless times, delighting audiences all over the world with the story of his three oldest daughters’ poignant and hilarious rifts with Jewish tradition. So Topol’s final tour as his most famous character was bound to be more about Topol himself than it was about Fiddler on the Roof. While the actor is more than deserving of the praise, his well-honed stage presence overshadows the other performers so completely that seeing Fiddler at the Orpheum Theatre was almost akin to watching Pelé playing the neighborhood kids in a pickup soccer game.

fiddler on the roof, presented through march 1 at the orpheum theatre, 910 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($26-$86) and information, see hennepintheatredistrict.org.

The audience’s focus was obvious from the first scene where, upon simply making his first entrance, Topol received the first of the night’s many ovations. He then went on to win that adulation by so completely embodying the role of Tevye that they may as well change the character’s name to “Topol.” Showing very little sign of his 70 years of age, Topol sang, danced, and kvetched as only someone with a very deep understanding of the role could.

Fiddler’s other actors are quite adept as well, but in the shadow of Mt. Everest, even Annapurna seems small. Rena Strober, Jamie Davis, and Alison Walla were convincing, if somewhat indistinguishable from one another, as Tevye’s daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava (respectively). As Tevye’s wife Golde, Susan Cella was very good as the prototypical Jewish mother. Her performance shone in particular during the dream scene, where Tevye conjures a wild ghostly visit to frighten Golde into accepting their daughter’s decision to marry the poor tailor’s son rather than the rich butcher. Golde’s interactions with Yente the Matchmaker were also excellent, due to Mary Stout’s masterful depiction of that character.

Fiddler’s story of Tevye’s daughters choosing to break tradition in order to marry the men they loved rather than the suitors the matchmaker picks for them is still relevant after all these years. Though the play is set in the tsarist Russia of a century ago, the tradition vs. modernity story still rings true with audiences today—Jewish or not. As one of Broadway’s contemporary classics, Fiddler will continue to inspire just such empathy for years to come. It is a shame that this will be the last we see of Chaim Topol in the role, but who knows? As one star dims, perhaps another will shine brighter.

Jon Behm (jonbehm@gmail.com) is a Minneapolis-based photographer and writer. While his specialty is music, Jon has a wide variety of interests that tend to take him all over the Twin Cities on a daily basis.

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