Play Review: The Gateway's Powerful 'Fiddler on the Roof'
The Gateway’s 2023–24 season continues with a timely classic: Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews, this production is a tour de force showcasing the immense talent that The Gateway cultivates.
In a story that many parents can relate to — despite its setting in 1905 Russia — a father is forced to reevaluate his beliefs as his three eldest daughters pursue progressive lifestyles that go against the long-held traditions he taught them. Will he cling adamantly to the old ways or embrace new ideas for the sake of his daughters? The character of Tevye, as portrayed by Bruce Winant, is so nuanced and earnestly conflicted, that at each major crossroads, there’s a feeling of tension in the audience as they await his confirmation of conviction or love.
Winant as Tevye carries this production on his shoulders. When a scene calls for an emotional gut-punch, he delivers. When a moment of levity is necessary, he delivers. And when narration is needed to pull the audience deeper into a scene, he delivers an impassioned aside cleverly structured as a prayer to God. The show’s emotional core, comic relief, narrator — even for the main character of a play that’s a lot, but a play this isn’t. In this musical, where songs are smartly focused on exploring characters’ fears and desires, Winant’s deep voice reverberates through the room as he sings of keeping Jewish traditions in “Tradition” and of his children growing up in “Sunrise, Sunset.”
In the most well-known song of Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man,” Winant shuffles across the stage as he chants about the hand God dealt him, not begrudging his poverty, but dreaming of a life without toil: “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either. … If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray.”
Opposite Tevye is his wife Golde, portrayed by Abby Lee, who infuses Golde with inexplicable vibrance. Unlike the show’s romantic pairings, it’s difficult to gauge the chemistry of Tevye and Golde’s actors, which is precisely the point. A traditional arranged marriage, this couple displays glimpses of genuine care for each other amidst their juggling of gender-defined parental duties.
While manipulative, Tevye’s scheme in “The Dream” does prove how well he knows Golde — and the production quality of the sequence makes it the biggest spectacle of the show. It isn’t until Tevye and Golde’s Act 2 duet “Do You Love Me?” that their relationship pulls on heartstrings and their actors fully shine in unison.
With five daughters in total, Tevye’s character arc, and Golde’s to a lesser extent, is most closely tied to his evolving relationship with his three oldest children as they find love in increasingly non-traditional places. Still remarkably relevant today, Fiddler on the Roof, written in the 1960s based on stories by Sholem Aleichem dating back to 1894, presents a fascinating cross-section of the sort of cultural paradigm shift that once occurred over generations and now takes place in the span of a few years.
Tevye is first confronted by a plea from his oldest daughter, the nearly 20 Tzeitel, spiritedly portrayed by Leah Mossman, who may have finally been matched by town matchmaker Yente, played by the scene-stealing Susan Jacks. As part of the best dance number in the show, “To Life,” which expertly juxtaposes Jewish and Cossack folk dancing, Tevye promises her hand to the town’s wealthy old butcher Lazar Wolf, played by Justin Holcomb with much gusto.
As her father in this time and culture, it is Tevye’s God-given right to do so, but his heart melts when Tzeitel weeps at the news, begging him to allow her to marry her best friend since childhood, the poor Jewish tailor Motel, brilliantly portrayed by Oliver Prose with a timid underdog charm. It’s difficult to deny how adorable Mossman and Prose are onstage together, so it’s a shame they never share a song. However, Prose’s triumphant “Miracle of Miracles” number powerfully sung in celebration of their blessed relationship remains a highlight of the show.
So Tevye gave an inch. Then he gave another when his teenage daughter Hodel, played boldly by Ruthy Froch, dared to dance with a boy at Tzeitel’s wedding, which even married women weren’t allowed to do according to tradition. Rather than explode, Tevye joins in on one of the most exciting dance numbers of the production. Unfortunately, the consequences that follow, at the hands of their Russian oppressors, rain down like divine punishment, so Tevye is less flexible when Hodel and her special boy, the politically and religiously radical student Perchik, eloquently portrayed by Nikita Burshteyn, announce their engagement regardless of his approval.
His first daughter marries a man she loves who shares the family’s Jewish faith and traditions. OK. His second daughter marries someone who technically shares their faith but throws out traditions to follow his own path. Less OK, but it could still be worse. And that’s when Tevye’s daughter Chava, innocently portrayed by Rebecca Lynn Goldfarb, announces that she’s in love with a man of totally different faith and traditions, who was previously enlisted in the Russian military. Even the most loving of parents would struggle with that.
At the heart of Fiddler on the Roof it’s about familial love and the growing pains of a family learning to accept that they don’t see eye to eye on everything, and that’s OK as long as the love and respect remain. Prospective investors may have wildly deemed the production “too Jewish” in the ’60s, but its themes ring relatable and true today on a near-universal level. With this ensemble and creative team, The Gateway has produced a powerfully moving show that Long Island families should flock to see.
The production runs through February 25 at The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport. For tickets and more information, visit thegateway.org.