A lone musician sweeps his bow across his fiddle and a familiar tune is heard. Fiddler on The Roof may be more than 50 years old but this overwhelmingly joyful and uplifting story, told against a background of anti-Semitism and change couldn’t be more timely or welcome.
It is Daniel Evans first season as artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre and he has passed the venue’s biggest challenge – creating a crowd-pleasing blockbuster musical as the highlight of its festival summer season.
Fiddler on The Roof opened last night to rapturous applause (not necessarily a given with Chichester’s knowledgable and critical audience).
Their ovation wasn’t just for the outstanding performance of its star, comic and actor Omid Djalili as dairyman and father of five daughters, Tevye, but also for an incredibly good ensemble whose singing made the production soar.
Djalili and Tracy Ann Oberman as his dour but loving wife, Golde, brought laughter and broke hearts as they gave the performances of their careers.
Fiddler is a good fit for Evans. Its pedigree is impeccable. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick came up with one of the most memorable scores in musical history. Every tune echoes its Jewish provenance and has theatre-goers humming along and tapping their feet.
It opens with a rousing and lengthy rendition of Tradition, with the company in fine voice and step, before regaling us with instantly memorable songs like Matchmaker, If I Were A Rich Man, To Life and Sunrise/ Sunset.
But in addition to confidently staging a hugely popular musical, its story is right on point, coming at a time when assaults on Jews have increased globally and stories about refugees and the dispossessed fill our media.
Fiddler, written by Joseph Stein from the Sholem Aleichem stories, is set in Russia of 1905 when Jewish settlements were under increasing attack.
Tevye lives, as his neighbours, in abject poverty, in the little town of Anatevka, where he drags his milk cart around and contantly berates God for giving him such a life.
The matchmaker is trying to find good husbands for his daughters, who are all growing fast, but, in these changing times, they are rebelling against tradition and the old family ways.
Set against a wider background of social and political upheaval it is the strength of family and the well observed, rich Jewish humour, that provides the light throughout this dark story.
Tevye’s conversations with God, in the form of monologues directly to the audience, play to his strengths as a stand-up comedian but he has charisma and stage presence that see him deliver a well-rounded and commanding performance.
Oberman is superb as the matriarch. Her deadpan delivery of sometimes very funny dialogue is spot on for a women subjected to a life of childbearing and drudgery.
Evans keeps the whole production simple with Lez Brotherston’s pared down set emphasising the transience of the characters’ way of life. There is little onstage other than piles of suitcases used for everything from doorways to tables.
But the big stand-out scene, the money shot, comes with the performance of The Dream when Tevye must persuade his wife to accept a new choice for their oldest daughter’s hand.
It’s terrifying, totally extravagant when pitched against this tale of austerity, and brilliantly achieved. It was hard to prevent some audience members jumping up to give it its own ovation.
The show’s set pieces, like the saying of the kiddush on Shabbat and the wedding feast, is especially well staged – although the now iconic bottle dance was rather sedately performed (yes, okay, I know it’s not as easy. I couldn’t do it).
And a rain curtain, used to project real images of Russian émigrés, adds authenticity and poignancy to the show’s finale.
Tevye’s three oldest daughters – Simbi Akande as Tzeitel, Emma Kingston as Hodel and Rose Shalloo as the bookish Chava are musically powerful with fine voices although their terribly English drama school accents let them down during dialogue.
And, talking of voices, one must mention Greg Castiglioni, who doesn’t have much of a part, but his phenomenal ability to hold a note is simply amazing.
Tom Brady’s orchestra, hidden away at the top of the stage, do a magnificent job with the musical numbers.
If Fiddler was director Evans’ final exam he has excelled himself. Don’t miss it. A triumph.
Fiddler on The Roof runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until September 2.
Fiddler on The Roof
Daniel Evans triumphs with his production of Fiddler on The Roof at Chichester Festival Theatre which gives Omid Djalili a career-best turn as Tevye.