Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Jon Tracy, tells a heartwarming story of a man’s relentless efforts to suppress changes that are taking over his village in Imperial Russia during the early 1900s. The play’s main theme — the upholding of traditions — is challenged when the poor dairyman Tevye’s (Michael RJ Campbell) three oldest daughters defy Jewish custom by marrying out of love. The emotion and passion evident among the members of the cast produce an eye-opening declaration of acceptance and change in a society that is held together by rigid practices.
Tevye’s attempts to relinquish his town’s social values are explored through tropes of custom and tradition, supplementing the play’s discussion of societal change. He longs for his daughters to break free from their poor lifestyle by marrying wealthy men, hoping it will bring them happiness and prosperity. But when his oldest daughter, Tzeitel (Abbey Lee), contradicts his ideals and marries a poor tailor instead of a wealthy butcher, Tevye is forced to alter his ways and be open to new ways of thinking.
Throughout the play, one gets a glimpse into Jewish culture and way of life. For example, Campbell’s confident and thrilling rendition of the musical’s opening song, “Tradition,” was the perfect introduction to the small town of Anatevka’s customs. With gusto, he sang the cultural law of the land: “Who has the right, as master of the house / To have the final word at home? / The Papa, the Papa / Tradition!”
Tradition also dictates the dynamics of marriage in Anatevka. Couples are not allowed to perform public displays of affection, thus deviating from the tender, loving and emotional side of marriage. Tevye, however, briefly digresses from this cultural norm in the song “Do You Love Me?,” tenderly asking his wife, Golde (Sarah Mitchell), if she loves him. Her initial response is shock: “Do I what?” But the song evolves into an elegant and tender piece, ending with the couple singing of their love in unison: “After 25 years / It’s nice to know.”
While some musical numbers warmed the audience’s heart, others, such as “The Dream,” succeeded in bringing out the audience’s inner child, provoking uncontrollable amounts of laughter. The outrageous yet serious nature of Tevye’s made-up nightmare sent giggles up and down the aisles, bringing a sense of warmth and comfort to the theater. With the humor-filled dialogue, ambitious tone of Tevye and chilling look of Golde’s expression, the comic aspect of the play was exemplified.
In a world where money is considered a dominant factor in achieving happiness, the play challenges that notion by indicating that love — and other ineffable, emotional belongings — begets true contentment. The actors’ ability to interweave serious yet heartfelt and amusing emotions successfully delivered the play’s lessons regarding the importance of family bonds and the reality of true love.
As the play suggests, not everyone has the pleasure of experiencing true love. And at the end of the day, finding a deep affection and fondness for another is a big deal, thus challenging the social standings of the time.
“Fiddler on the Roof” proves that anyone — rich or poor — deserves happiness. The powerful bond among the family members gives off a nostalgic sensation, leaving one to ponder ways in which the effects of cultural change generate lasting effects on society. Of course, with newfangled modalities of thought come senses of fear and doubt. But as the musical suggests, taking the risk is worth it. Change that is promising, in the eyes of finding true love, is worth the risk.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is playing at the Julia Morgan Theatre through Aug. 2.