Tradition came to Lawrence on Thursday in the form of a traveling production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a musical about the friction generated when social change pushes families and friends apart. Old Tevye’s doggedness about tradition reverberated through Lawrence, one of Kansas’ more rebellious daughters, and we showed that we can still appreciate a classic.
An excellent performance is to be expected from a traveling troupe like the one that performed at the Lied Center, and an excellent performance was given. John Preece has played Tevye more than 1,500 times, and the practice showed. Sammy Dallas Bayes’ directing lent itself to both comedy and gravity, and the supporting cast proved their abilities to sing and dance to a song list that never gets old (even Gwen Stefani’s rehash of “If I Were a Rich Man” led to moderate success in 2004).
Stefani isn’t the only girl meddling with Tevye’s traditions — his eldest daughter wants to pick her own husband. Nancy Evans plays Tevye’s wife, Golde, who spouts, “Who do you think you are, arranging a match for yourself?”
With five pretty daughters, each a little more unruly than the last, the couple find themselves hemorrhaging tradition in order to accommodate the wants of their girls. But the year is 1905, and for Jews in Russia at the time, tradition was vital to the community’s survival.
When Tevye weighs the consequences of allowing or disallowing the marriages of his daughters, the musical’s namesake takes the stage. The directing and choreography have Tevye dancing with, speaking to and occasionally shooing away his fiddler friend, as if the fiddler is Tevye’s conscience or perhaps a reminder of what Tevye himself wanted as a young man. He must walk a tightrope between his values and the desires of his children.
Rebellious Lawrence may sometimes wish that it didn’t have to live surrounded by its own tradition-oriented Tevye. But occasionally, like a forgotten epiphany, something like Fiddler comes, reminding us that tradition is divisive, but that it also serves to build community. The gem of “Fiddler” comes in a scene near the beginning. The men of the village are gathered at the local pub. They’re not all of the same descent or belief system, but they’ve got a marriage to celebrate, and they won’t let cultural differences (created by tradition, ironically) get in the way.
As the Lied Center filled with applause, the production members grinned and bowed appreciatively. But what really got us on our feet was Preece’s ability to show so vividly the sacrifices and rewards of tradition: cultural practices to which we can all raise a glass.