At the beginning and end of Fiddler on the Roof, the stage is filled with most of the three-dozen cast members. But the mood is dramatically different, as the joy of the opening number, "Tradition," is replaced by sadness as a small Jewish community begins its own miniature diaspora.
This show is known for the great Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick songs ("Sunrise, Sunset," "Matchmaker") and an iconic Broadway performance by uber-comic Zero Mostel as the poor milkman Tevye.
But there is plenty of heart and poignancy in this tale, as the show's book by Joseph Stein was spun from an original story by the famed Jewish author Sholem Aleichem. And that is what this solid production delivers in spades, as directed by Eric van Baars.
A big reason for that spin on this familiar chestnut is George Roth as Tevye. Although he can be (and is in this show) quite funny, Roth is not a natural comedian. So some of the laughs that we have come to expect from a Tevye comedy routine are not there.
What Roth provides is a warm-hearted Tevye who dialogues with God so often in turn-of-the-last-century Russia you'd think he had a Twitter account. Committed to tradition and his family—wife Golde and their five daughters—Roth's Tevye is a tender man seeking salvation and maybe a few creature comforts, with a milk can in one hand and the holy books under the other arm.
While this production is loaded with well-honed naturalistic moments, it peaks during the surreal chaos of "The Dream,' as Tevye tries to convince Golde that her grandma Tzeitel has appeared in his nightmare and announced that their daughter (the grandmother's namesake) should marry the poor tailor Motel, not the rich and much older butcher Lazar Wolf (Frank Jackman).
As Granny T, Frianna DeRosa motors around the stage like a three-foot-tall demon, and then a giant appears as the butcher's dead wife Fruma-Sarah (Tee Boyich), who also wants the wedding with Wolf to be cancelled. Aided by chorus members in gray shrouds, this is a riotously amusing scene with original choreography reproduced by John R. Crawford.
Standouts in the large cast include Jessica Benson, who utilizes her stellar singing voice to great effect in "Far From the Home I Love." As Motel, the young man Tzeitel truly loves, Brady Miller is properly timid and fragile as he tries to stand up to Papa Tevye.
Tracee Patterson, fresh from her astounding portrayal of Medea at Mamai Theatre, contributes a good deal as Golde, investing her songs with a deep and knowing growl. But she leans towards over animating in some scenes. This is a tendency also prevalent with Danielle Dorfman, who at times turns Tzeitel into a Zero Mostel-ish cartoon character with unnecessary mugging.
Portraying the traveling scholar and rebel Perchik, who falls for Hodel, Jake Wood sings pleasantly. But he needs to open his eyes (literally) and his heart (figuratively) to begin to share the emotions surging through his character.
A number of smaller roles are handled with panache, especially Lissy Gulick as Yente, the matchmaker who is always into everybody's business. And the rabbi is played by Mark Seven, a man whose face absolutely radiates joy even though half of it is covered by a thick mustache and beard. Eat your heart out, Santa Claus.
From the big dance numbers to the long progression of Jews expelled from their village by the Russians, the large moments are well crafted. But it's in the small interchanges, the subtle emotional turns, where this Fiddler plays its most beguiling tune.
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