"Fiddler on the Roof"

by David A. Rosenberg

The secret is out. Even if you’ve seen “Fiddler on the Roof” (you know who you are), you ought to get to Goodspeed for their current production of the long-running hit. It’s a doozy.

And, lo and behold, it’s directed by Rob Ruggiero, who does a much more authentic job than the last Broadway revival, which many dubbed the Christian version of the Sholem Aleichem stories.┬áRuggiero’s great gift -- and it is a gift -- is finding the humanity in what he touches. In prior Goodspeed outings, he drew tears with the prize-winning ”The Most Happy Fella,” made the long-winded “Camelot” palatable and infused dimension into the Founding Fathers of “1776.”

In the current “Fiddler,” he avoids the cutes, the idea of “happy little Jews and their weird customs.” Starting with the Tevye of Adam Heller, he 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 Joe Stein was once a TV joke writer.)

All seems serene in Anatevka, the small Russian village. Everyone is in his or her place -- 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 show encompasses numerous locales.

It’s 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 Payonik’s thwarted Lazer; from daughters Barrie Kreinik, Elizabeth DeRosa and Jen Brissman to suitors David Perlman, Abdiel Vivancos and Timothy Hassler -- none is 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.

L’Chaim!

 

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