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Monday, August 21, 2023

Poignant ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Beth Tfiloh

Gabe Lewin as Tevye

Fiddler on the Roof at Baltimore County’s Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre is “a perfect fit…like a glove,” to borrow a line from the show. It would seem to be a no-brainer that BTCT would have put on this musical years ago. Except there is that pesky thing called production rights that theatre producers and artistic directors must pursue and obtain. Thankfully, BTCT was able to secure said rights after a five-year quest, and this classic is now being presented as its annual summer musical. And it’s superb.

Fiddler on the Roof, with its iconic score, opened in 1964 and became the longest running show on Broadway (over 3,000 performances) until it was eclipsed by Grease.  It captured 9 Tony Awards of the 10 categories nominated including Best Musical, Score, Book, Direction and Choreography. 

Based on the Sholem Aleichem story Tevye and his Daughters, the show was crafted from music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein. A hit movie and numerous productions worldwide were spawned by the timeless musical.  

Popular songs, such as “Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” ‘If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life” and “Do You Love Me” are performed expertly during Beth Tfiloh’s production. And the classic “Sunrise Sunset” during the climactic wedding scene at the end of the first act is extraordinary.

Venerable director and co-artistic director Diane M. Smith leads a talented and enthusiastic cast, crew and orchestra in bringing the six decades-old powerhouse musical to life. The performers’ ability to act, sing and dance at such a high level may make you forget that this is a community theatrical production.

With the company being predominantly Jewish, it lends a unique authenticity to the musical and that is evident throughout. Adding to that authenticity are the magnificent period costumes designed and coordinated by Lizzie Jaspan.

The story centers on a Jewish family in Anatevka, a small village in 1905 Czarist Russia. The head of the household, Tevye, tries desperately to cling to the old-time Jewish traditions while confronting the emerging changes in social mores that his three oldest daughters bring to the table. These young women eschew deeply ingrained Jewish traditions in favor of pursuing lives of their own as the times are changing.

"The performers’ ability to act, sing and dance at such a high level may make you forget that this is a community theatrical production."

If there ever was a character in theatre who one feels compelled to root for, it has to be Tevye, the nearly impoverished milkman in Anatevka. His strong-willed wife has a sharp-tongue, and he is struggling to house, feed and clothe his five daughters.   And on top of that, Tevye and his family as well as the other Jews in Anatevka face constant anti-Semitism and intimidation from Czarist Russia.

The central character, Tevye, played by Gabe Lewin, appears in most scenes in the production. On one hand he possesses a rich and authoritative baritone voice. On the other hand, he acts with a commanding presence to include appropriate facial expressions, mannerisms and timing. On one hand he demonstrates comedic instincts.  On the other hand, he can dance, too. Mr. Lewin would have made Zero Mostel—the original Tevye—proud of his work and would have applauded him with both hands. 

Once Mr. Lewin kicked off the production with a solid rendition of “Tradition,” you knew you were in for a treat the rest of the way.  He continues to soar in “If I Were a Rich Man,” the group number “Sabbath Prayer,” and in one of the more touching songs, “Do You Love Me?” with Kendra Keiser as his wife Golde.

Abby Ostrow, Ella LaFiandra, Samara Silverman

Demonstrating his acting dexterity, Mr. Lewin convincingly and endearingly conveys his frustrations with his daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava.  Each one of them pushes back on longtime Jewish traditions, deeply troubling Tevye, to pursue the ones they love. 

With Tzeitel it was Tevye’s breaking an agreement—convinced by the protests from Tzeitel (played exceptionally by Hannah Elliott)—with the much older wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf, played by Brian Singer.  Lazar had been “matched” by Yente (Julie Kitt who plays the part wonderfully leading to amusing exchanges.)  

But Tzeitel wanted to be with and eventually marry the poor and timid tailor Motel (pronounced MAH-tel) played very well by Yitzchok Smilowitz. In dramatic fashion, Motel calls up his latent inner strength to fight for the woman he loves. He performs well in the number “Miracle of Miracles.”

Hodel, charmingly played by Ayala Asher, caused Tevye’s blood pressure to rise as she rebuked tradition too.   She was not being formally “matched” and instead found love with Perchik, a radical who thinks little of such customs.  Strong-headed Perchik is played excellently by Eitan Murinson.  Ms. Asher’s rendition of “Far From the Home I Love” is moving, using her beautiful voice to full effect.

For Chava (Talia Lebowitz), it was all Tevye could take.  When analyzing each of the other two daughter’s intentions, he reasoned, “On the one hand…but on the other hand…” before he reached a decision.  In Chava’s case, “I have no other hand,” he concludes.  This is a result of her desire to be with Fyedka (Kemuel Vander-Puije) who was not Jewish.  Tevye could not go along in this case. 

Then there is Golde, Tevye’s wife of 25 years.  She provides comedic balance with her brusque retorts to Tevye especially when the sacred traditions were being compromised.  Golde succumbs to Tevye’s fake nightmare ruse in a spectacular scene that includes white-clad spirits from the otherworld that allowed her to be convinced that Tzeitel should marry Motel. Kendra Keiser plays the role to the hilt.

Kendra Keiser as Golde and Gabe Lewin as Tevye

Scott Black effectively plays the Constable, an underling of the anti-Semitic Czar but one who has compassion for the Jewish community in the village.  He ably expresses his conflicting emotions between duty and his concern for Tevye and his cohorts.

At the end, the Czar ousts the Jewish residents from Anatevka and the family members go their separate ways in a sad conclusion.

The remainder of the sizable cast and ensemble provide excellent support for the principal characters with their vocals and dancing. They execute these numbers choreographed by Rachel Miller with energy and precision, which are on target with Jewish traditional and Russian Cossack dances.  Charlotte Evans Crowley ably directs the six-piece orchestra.

The set was designed by Evan Margolis, BTCT’s co-artistic director. The backdrop is simple but contains the Hebrew words for Tradition, Marriage, The Bible, Family, Home, and Community—all overlying themes from the show.

Scene changes are executed by moving large set pieces like a porch, benches, chairs, tables, beds, a cart and a well. While these changes occur, Ms. Crowley’s orchestra provides music to help with the transitions.

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. and beyond, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of what can happen. Amid the music, dancing, celebrating and joy, Fiddler on the Roof, brings that poignant consciousness to the fore.  

מַזָל טוֹב (congratulations) to Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre and director Ms. Smith for staying true to the original and all of its traditions and to the hardworking performers and technical crew for executing an unforgettable and enlightening production.

Running time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: Fog effects in use.

Fiddler on the Roof plays August 23 and 27 at the H. Morton Rosen Arts Center located at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Rd., Pikesville, MD 21208. Tickets can be purchased by calling 410-413-2436, visiting online


Photos: Evan Margolis/Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre