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Friday, June 05, 2009

Topol leads cast of 'Fiddler' revival

There are few shows that deal with faith, love, and Jewish suffering as dramatically and melodically as "Fiddler on the Roof," one of Broadway's most emotional musicals.

Based on the timeless stories of Sholom Aleichem, "Fiddler" features many of Broadway's most heartfelt hits, including "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition," and "Matchmaker, Matchmaker."

"Fiddler" tells the story of Tevye, a poor milkman, and his hardships while the Czar systematically persecutes Jewish families -- sometimes invading weddings, other times driving people from their homes.

Forty years after it landed on Broadway, hit the London stage, and became a popular movie with Chaim Topol, a revival of "Fiddler" (starring Topol) begins Wednesday at Chicago's Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theatre.

Director Sammy Dallas Bayes recreates this classic show exactly as it was performed on Broadway, using many of Jerome Robbins' original production numbers. The show will feature Topol in his final tour as Tevye. Topol appeared in the movie and in 2,500 stage productions all over the world.

Jewish spiritual leaders from Northwest Indiana applaud the strong themes of Jewish faith and solidarity that are reflected in Tevye's poignant journey.

"Fiddler is both Jewish, and at the same time it's very universal," said Congregation Beth Israel's Rabbi Benjamin Kramer. "While it talks about Jewish people, at a particular time in a particular community, people still connect to it in a very universal way."

Kramer said people relate to Tevye's simple desire -- to protect and make his daughters happy. Tevye fiercely safeguards his Old World traditions from the frightening forces that threaten to eliminate his faith and his people.

"Tevye's a father, and he's trying to provide for his family, and those issues transcend a particular time," Kramer said. "That's the thing I like about the story. You can relate to the story of some outside force threatening your family and your home. The idea you worked your whole life, and everything can be taken away is a universal fear."

Kramer said the music and setting are nostalgic for American Jews, who never had to endure the hardships Tevye did.

"There's something we like about a world where people were connected to family and religion, where people worked hard while they sang and danced," Kramer said. "The music is great, without a doubt. For American Jews, the music and setting will conjure a world that we'd like to think existed but might not have existed. There's a certain element of nostalgia in it." "Fiddler" does not glaze over the story of Jewish persecution, but as a musical, it celebrates the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people to survive horrible hardships.

In Tevye's conversations with God, he comes up with pointed answers to life's perplexing struggles. Often Tevye strikes out at life's injustices with his salt-of the-earth wisdom and his edgy sense of humor.

"What appeals to me is he has a very Jewish sense of humor," Kramer said. "Tevye combines self-deprecation with optimism when he's put through some very trying situations. The fact Tevye isn't broken by his adversities is a sign of his faith."

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov, from Chabad of Northwest Indiana, said even if "Fiddler" is a fictional story, the story of Jewish struggle it represents is repeated over and over in history books.

"This story is all about traditions, and that's what kept Jewish people surviving throughout history," Zalmanov said. "By staying true to our Jewish laws and the Torah, that's what kept us together. It's not such a happy ending, but that's the story of the Jewish people."

Zalmanov believes Tevye made some mistakes when his daughters began to rebel, but he still respects Tevye's unshakable devotion to his faith.

"In our faith, we believe that God is ultimately in control of everything, but for things to work, we have to do our part," Zalmanov revealed.

"What we can learn from Tevye is when we're able to connect traditional values with modern times and make it palatable to the next generation, then we've done our job," Zalmanov added.

'We believe even a person that is simple or ordinary can have a great faith and a close relationship with God.' --Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov, Chabad of NW Indiana.

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