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Center Stage: 'Fiddler on the Roof'

November 01, 2018

BY TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Perseverance in the midst of immense societal and familial change envelops the life and lives of Tevye, his family and community.

Life teeters upon a sharpened point of upheaval.

Hence the title and content of Theatre Bristol’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” The musical account of the culturally rich yet monetarily poor Jewish man and his family amid rapidly altering 1905 Czarist Russia opens Nov. 9 at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee. It runs on weekends through Nov. 18.

“It’s a very human story,” said Glenn Patterson, director of “Fiddler on the Roof,” moments before Monday’s rehearsal. “When a traditional society confronts a society that is changing, how do you hold onto the traditional thing? Tevye talks about those things.”

A married father of five daughters, Tevye works as a milkman. His wife, Golde, manages the home. They struggle financially. On occasion throughout the play, he speaks with God to ask why he’s in such a predicament, yet he remains faithful.

Then secularism and nontraditional thought enters his village of Anatevka. In traditional fashion, he chose a husband, a well-to-do butcher named Lazar Wolf, for his oldest daughter, Tzeitel. She wants to marry her friend, Motel, who works as an impoverished tailor.

“What’s wrong with Lazar?” Tevye (Bob Cantler) asks his daughter in the play’s first act.

“I’ll be unhappy all of my days,” said Tzeitel (Camille Gray).

Eventually, Tevye relents. He provides his blessing upon the marriage. In so doing, tradition bends to fit the changing tides in society and clash of the generations therein.

“It’s a clash of the societies,” Patterson said moments before rehearsal began. “It’s a clash of tradition versus the new.”

Vividly characteristic and buoyant songs weave throughout “Fiddler on the Roof.” Bob Cantler’s baritone bounds forth like open arms of welcome. Hear my story of tradition, his voice says. Detect my pride as a Jewish man of faith and family, he communicates. Feel my pain as first my family and then my faith come under attack, he relates.

“I love my character,” Cantler said. “He loves his family. He loves his faith. You know where he stands.”

Imagine a snowball on top of a snowy hill. Give it a nudge. Down it rolls, small and slowly at first. Eventually, it gathers speed and size. That’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Cantler leads the singing of “Tradition” to start the musical. Therein he outlines established roles of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters within Jewish culture. Boundaries are clear.

“Without tradition,” Cantler as Tevye said in the play, “our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Tradition completely encompasses the lives of Tevye, his family and neighbors. When challenged, they teeter. They’re like human weathervanes caught in a breeze that turns into a gale that morphs into a tornado.

Try as they might, they simply cannot stem the tide of invasion from forces outside their faith and culture.

“How powerful this message is now,” said Samantha Gray, producer of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Based on short stories by Sholem Aleichem and adapted into a book by Joseph Stein, “Fiddler on the Roof” debuted on Broadway in 1964. Widespread acclaim greeted the musical. With gripping lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, emotive music by Jerry Bock, and Jerome Robbins’ captivating choreography, “Fiddler on the Roof” became one of Broadway’s most famous and long-running productions.

Relevancy hugged “Fiddler on the Roof” then and relevancy hugs “Fiddler on the Roof” now.

“We can use this show to tell an important message that what we are doing here is more than just entertainment,” Gray said. “We have to do this show. People need to hear this.”