Having played the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof over 2,500 times, Topol’s Farewell Tour, running August 11-23 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is a must-see for Fiddler fans. It is an iconic performance, one which won him an Oscar nomination in the 1971 film production, and one that has not diminished at all over the years. It’s fascinating to watch a performer that is so in command of such a difficult role, capable of exuding a combination of humor and intense rage within moments of each other. There is a passion in everything Tevye does, all rooted in a fundamental belief in the tradition of his people. While the entire production takes place in the tiny Jewish village of Anatevka, Russia, the story feels huge. And Topol makes it feel real.
The story is told from Tevye’s perspective, but the other performances are equally as strong. As an entire village has to be represented, there is a pretty large ensemble. The parts are all played very well, and are very memorable. As the play progresses, we learn that Tevye has five daughters, three of whom play very imporant roles. One of the traditions of their village is that of the matchmaker The women do not choose their husbands, but rather, are assigned to one, based in large part on the financial stability of the suitor. Beginning with the oldest, Tzeitel, things begin to go wrong. She wants to marry her childhood best friend, which goes against everything their traditions dictate. However, Tevye accepts this, which leads to the next daughter wanting to marry an activist who will be leaving the village. He reluctantly agrees, but when the next daughter wants to marry somebody who isn’t even Jewish, he has to draw the line. Through his daughters, we see the world evolving, leaving Tevye behind.
While the story does get intense, Topol always portrays an undercurrent of humor. Muttering sarcastic asides to himself, as well as to God, he always keeps the audience entertained while remaining completely believable. Even more impressive is that he can remain so compelling even during the big musical numbers, of which there are many. The music is all fantastic, both in terms of the original source material as well these particular performances. It’s a very emotional story and the music covers the highs and the lows in spectacular fashion. At times the music is on a small scale, providing intimate insight into the inner thoughts of the characters. And at other times, they are big, lavish productions; the kind usually associated with larger-scale musical theatre. Highlights include the hilarious “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” performed by Tevye’s daughters, “Sunrise, Sunset,” a beautiful depiction of a mother and father’s elation and sorrow on their child’s wedding day, and “If I Were a Rich Man,” Tevye’s wishful thinking during one of many conversations he has with God. It should also be mentioned that the orchestra sounds terrific as well.
On top of the great acting and music, the production design is phenomenal across the board. The imaginative set design really conveys a sense of what it would be like to live in this simple village. These sets, along with the terrific lighting, provide an atmosphere that always matches the emotional tone of what is happening at the time. One of my favorite visual moments takes place during the musical number “Sabbath Prayer.” As the song begins, we see Tevye’s family beginning their prayer in darkness, only to have the sets and lighting evolve to reveal the entire village giving the same prayer at the same time. It’s a chilling visual, and while it’s a small moment, it strongly reinforces the theme of tradition that everybody in this village shares.
While being billed as “Topol’s Farewell Tour,” he himself says that “he’s not really certain that he’s done with the role.” He has dedicated such a monumental portion of his life to this performance, it must be really hard to consider giving up the character. But on the off-chance that he is calling it quits, this is absolutely a production worth seeing. I saw the movie many years ago, but it’s a completely different experience seeing it live. I can’t recommend this enough.
Tickets are available at OCPAC.org, at the Center’s Box Office or by calling (714) 556-2787.