Fiddler on the Roof story still current a century later

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Photo: Danielle Burns

During the drunken tavern scene Tevye, played by Michel Blackburn, celebrates the hasty engagement of his eldest daughter to the butcher Lazar Wolf.

The Quebec Art Company (QAC) was keen to present Fiddler on the Roof, one of the best-known musicals in the world, after learning actor Michel Blackburn (who portrayed Jesus in the QAC’s 2018 production of Jesus Christ Superstar) had always wanted to play Tevye, the softhearted main character.

Tevye is a poor dairyman with five daughters. The family lives in the village of Anatevka, Russia. It is 1905, a turbulent political time for Jews. Tevye grasps at traditions and customs to keep him grounded while the world around him is changing and he struggles with his daughters’ choices of suitors. His personal struggles are exacerbated by the restrictions put upon the Jewish villagers in Imperial Russia, until matters hit the breaking point within his family and the village, as Anatevka falls under the heel of its oppressors.

Unfortunately, this theme is still current a century later in 2019. Arranged marriages may no longer be the norm, except among the most orthodox Jews, but inequality, violence and attacks on various ethnic and religious groups are far from a thing of the past.

Blackburn’s solo “If I Were a Rich Man” was a highlight of the evening, as was the traditional dancing accompanied by an orchestra, especially in the wedding scene, when male dancers showed off their agility balancing wine bottles on their heads! Blackburn nailed the catchy and well-known chorus “digguh, deedle, daidle dum” with such joy and zest that it was hard not to be transported to a Broadway stage.

The 1964 version of Fiddler on the Roof was once the longest-running musical, with more than 3,200 shows. Rights to the script are sold under the condition that it be performed without modification, with a few exceptions made considering stage size, number of cast members and gender ratio.

Despite the serious underlying theme of displacement and ethnic discrimination, the play came off joyfully with masterful inclusion of music and choreography to tell a story of love, family and devotion to culture and religion.

First-time QAC performer Mary Bernier played a significant and strong role as Golde, the “weathered” wife of Tevye and the mother who rules the ship with strong will and hard work. A product of the patriarchal society of the times, she is quick to scold her literary daughter, asking, “Why does a girl have to read? Will it get her a better husband?” – an ongoing concern for her parents, who hope each of their five daughters will marry a wealthy man. Mother is less sympathetic when her eldest complains of a potential suitor’s baldness. So, “Marry a monkey!” quips Golde. Tevye is more empathetic to his daughters’ need for both economic stability and love.

Director Patricia Grimaud is not new to the QAC but this was her first time in the director’s chair. Grimaud said that acting was “her first love,” starting in elementary school in Montreal and later in her 20s with a small theatre company. Then there was a “huge gap where family and a full-time career took precedence.” After moving to Quebec City 15 years ago, she “was thrilled to hear that there was an English-language theatre company in town.” She has been in several of their productions, the last one being Self Help two years ago. Grimaud has also served on the QAC’s executive board for the past three years.

Grimaud admits putting on this play is “a major commitment and lots of work,” but she shares the credit with “the whole cast, along with the fantastic production crew who slog away behind the scenes not always getting the recognition they deserve.” This includes choreographer Brigitte Method, music director Bobby Fielding, and orchestral director Hugh Glassco. Zak Waddell (set design and construction) was “instrumental and indispensable in helping me conceive my vision for the stage and in constructing and assembling a set that served the production so well,” said Grimaud.

Directing Fiddler (such a human, heartfelt story) “has let me experience what can be accomplished with a great script, story and all the right people.” Grimaud said she “might attempt directing again, but a drama with a much smaller cast.” She added, “But only after a long, long vacation.”

The only problem with Fiddler and its catchy tunes is that you might hum “deedle, daidle dum” for many a day following the performance. But that and the $25 admission are a small price to pay for a performance of this calibre in English. Shows at CEGEP Champlain–St. Lawrence auditorium continue until Nov. 30. For tickets, visit quebecartcompany.com.

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Motel, the poor tailor, lifts his bride Tzeitel’s veil during their wedding ceremony.  Photo by Danielle Burns 

 

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The orchestra includes: (front row) Simon Jacobs (violin and Mordcha, the inn-keeper) and Miriam Blair (the “fiddler” on the roof); (back row) Benoît Gingras (accordion), musical director Hugh Glassco (keyboard), and Aude Chaumaz (clarinet).  Photo by Danielle Burns