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A CurtainUp Review
Fiddler on the Roof
By David A. Rosenberg
As directed by Rob Ruggiero, the re-telling of Sholem Aleichem stories finds the basic humanity in what, in other hands, could be a cutesy tale of "happy little Jews and their weird customs." Starting with the Tevye of Adam Heller, Ruggiero reaches the heart of a people knocking out a hardscrabble existence in 1905 Czarist Russia.
Balancing the more serious aspects — traditions questioned, pogroms, exile — with its sometimes jokey humor ("They're both so happy, they don't know how miserable they are"), Ruggiero doesn't let the evening veer off the road. (Librettist Joseph Stein was once a TV joke writer.)
All seems serene in Anatevka, the small Russian village. Everyone is in his or her place with males working here, females housekeeping there. But pots are simmering. Not only are the villagers under the thumb of the ruling soldiers, but Tevye's daughters are restless, rebelling against arranged marriages. Worst of all, daughter Chava is in love with a (gasp!) Christian.
How Tevye manages all this possible tsuris, while keeping his nagging wife at bay, has entertained audiences of all religions since it opened on Broadway in 1964, running for a record-smashing 3,242 performances. Told against a melodic score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick ("Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," "Far From the Home I Love"), the show strives for authenticity, while remembering it's a big Broadway musical. Even on Goodspeed's moderate size stage, the production encompasses numerous locales.
Hardly a relic, Fiddler is astute enough to say something to audiences of today. Still troubling are religious fervor, educating young girls, tribalism, refugees, the gap between rich and poor ("If you're wealthy enough, no one will call you stupid," says Tevye; employers are naturally "mean," says the liberal Perchik, one of the suitors).
Heller's Tevye avoids the "look-at-me" temptation of leading roles. His talks with God are sincere, his annoyance with his wife believable, his confusion about his daughters filled with compassion. Further, his humor is filled with the weariness of one who needs a laugh to temper his burdens.
Everyone seems to have been coached to find the character's truth. From Lori Wilner's non-shrewish wife to John Payonk's thwarted Lazar; from daughters Barrie Kreinik, Elizabeth DeRosa and Jen Brissman to suitors David Perlman, Abdiel Vivancos and Timothy Hassler there isn't a caricature.
Unlike, say, Show Boat, Fiddler doesn't require grandeur. The sets, with birch trees lining upstage, the costumes, the lights, the musicians under Michael O'Flaherty make the evening both intimate yet far-reaching in its implications. Along with Parker Esse's vigorous choreography, following Jerome Robbins' originals, the production captures the essence of people simply trying to lead their lives.