Even as a good Iranian Baha’i boy, Omid Djalili wanted to play Tevye. He reportedly loved the 1971 movie starring Chaim Topol. But his performance for this revival owes more to the first singing Tevye of them all, in the shape of the great Zero Mostel.
Djalili, at 51 the same age and shape that Mostel was when he created the role in 1964, has many of the qualities that won the American star a Tony in a production that launched the Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick musical into the pantheon of greatest shows.
I don’t have any evidence that Djalili studied footage of Mostel in preparation for Daniel Evans’s superb Chichester production. But as the British-Iranian comedian beetles across the stage, there is something Mostel-esque about the way his ample girth turns from a waddle into a shimmy; the delicate hand movements that are every bit as expressive as the high kicks and blurring spins of the dancers next to him; and how even as Tevye rages against his defiant daughters for refusing the tradition of arranged marriage, or at God for keeping him poor and put-upon by an antisemitic Tzar and an intimidating wife Golde (a terrifically poised Tracy-Ann Oberman), the twinkle never dims.
This performance should put to rest any notion that, for a Jewish character’s Jewishness to be convincing, it needs to be played by a Jew. That said, Djalili has had some practice with Jewish roles including Fagin and Mahumud Nasir, the Muslim who in David Baddiel’s comedy The Infidel discovers that he’s a Jew. But here he’s so good, and so Jewish that I’ll eat my tallit if Evans’s production doesn’t transfer to the West End.
Granted, his voice may be a tad underpowered. But that’s more than compensated for by some mighty choral singing. It elevates the signature number Tradition to the heavens, or at least to the flies.
Evans and his designer Lez Brotherston opt to keep the musical mostly indoors. There’s little to suggest the ramshackle piles of the shtetl of Anatevka. But the sparse staging allows room for two of the production’s bravura moments.
The first is the dream sequence in which, in order to persuade Golde to change her mind about who shall marry their eldest daughter, Tevye describes a message he received in a dream.
The fact that he’s making it up doesn’t prevent the show from launching into full horror mode with Jewish zombie ancestors rising from their graves. And then, later, photographs of real shtetl communities are projected onto a curtain of rain through which Anatevka’s Jews walk after being expelled from their homes.
Yet such spectacular flourishes are less the point here than the detail of individual performances. Among these, Rose Shalloo guides her Chava from crushingly shy diffidence to steely determination. And then there is Oberman’s Golde; the lilt of her accent pure Pale of Settlement.
More impressive still is the line she treads; formidable enough for Tevye to fear, yet warm enough to make sense of that delightfully schmaltzy number Do You Love Me?
But the show undoubtedly belongs to the masterful Djalili, who embodies all the contradictions that make Tevye one of musical theatre’s greatest inventions — the anger and the love; the explosions of rage and moments of introspection, all underpinned by his greatest virtue: his sweetness.