The anticipation of knowing you will soon be seeing a live performance of one of your favourite musicals of all time; watching talented actors and listening to their strong voices belt out those much-loved tunes with the catchy, moving orchestral score… it's almost the best part of an outing to the theatre. Almost. But then the lights dim and the music starts, and fills your ears and head and you're transported to the world you see unravelling before you and you say to yourself, yes, magic does exist.
Based on the iconic stories by Sholem Aleichem, and inspired by Marc Chagall's painting, the Green Violinist, Fiddler On The Roof tells the story of dairyman Tevye, his wife Golde and what life is like for them and their five daughters in their shtetl (Jewish village) Anatevka in Imperial Russia at the start of the 20th century, where they are holding on tight to their traditions while the world around them changes rapidly.
The musical, by composer and lyricist team of Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick, debuted on Broadway in the 1960s, with Samuel 'Zero' Mostel playing the lead role and later, the Israeli actor Topol played Tevye when the musical moved to London's West End. Topol later reprised the role in the successful film, released in 1971.
This new production has new choreography and orchestrations and it works in moving the show away from the dated musical theatre of the last century and infusing it with contemporary meaning – the villagers are 21st century refugees saving themselves by leaving their homes and the threat that surrounds them to move on somewhere new.
The refrain "Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place, searching for an old familiar face" summarises the plight of the refugee and is as relevant today as it's always been. The joy of Fiddler is its wide appeal; although the story tells of a Jewish community forced to flee because of antisemitic attacks, the theme of the fragility of minority people who live alongside the majority translates to every culture in every country in the world.
As with all the best tragic stories, there are also lots of laughs. Omid Djalili owns the stage as Tevye, playing him with so much warmth and humanity, that you can't help but sympathise with the dairyman whose God has it in for him and who struggles to still cling to tradition despite his daughters rebelling and the social upheaval of the times.
Djalili also has a great voice and throws himself into the physicality of the role with great comic timing and fantastic dancing with the rest of the cast, that is faithful to Russian Jewish folk songs while being accessible for a contemporary audience. Tracy-Ann Oberman is Tevye's wife Golde, and she shines on stage, bringing an honesty and subtle humour to the part of put-upon wife, while the three daughters Tzeitel (Simbi Akande), Hodel (Emma Kingston) and Chava (Rose Shalloo), all imbue the bravery and determination it takes to follow their heart's desires.
The captivating dream scene was a highlight as was the emotional ending which highlights the bitter truth among the musical nostalgia. Artistic director Daniel Evans has created a triumphant production, from the understated stage sets, costumes and props to Alastair David's energetic choreography and emotional melodies, Fiddler will surely be a West End hit when it finishes its run at Chichester. But don't hang around, seize the day and go and see it now!
Fiddler on the Roof is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 2 September.
Photographs: Johan Persson