Lyric Stage and Fiddler on the Roof Are a Match Made in Musical Heaven

Seeing a show at Lyric Stage isn't just a chance to revisit a beloved piece of American musical theater; it's an education in how musicals were done, and still can be done, on a grand scale. Lyric's specialty, its sole focus, is reviving big American musicals, so the draw of a show like Fiddler on the Roof, opening the company's 22nd season, is to see it in the style in which it originally hit the Broadway stage decades ago.

That means a 35-piece orchestra, led by conductor Jay Dias, rich with woodwinds and strings. There are a dozen violinists in the pit for Fiddler, including soloist Stephen Beall, who appears atop that roof, plus three violists, three cellists and two on double bass. It means more than 30 actors, dancers and singers in the cast directed by Len Pfluger and choreographed by Ann Neiman, who has reproduced Jerome Robbins' original dances from Fiddler's 1964 Broadway debut. Yes, the men dance with bottles on their hats in the wedding party sequence, and yes, the gimmick is still impressive.

Numbers would mean nothing, however, if performances by everyone from the bearded charmer in the leading role of Tevye, Dallas actor Jason Kane, to the musician squeezing the accordion in the pit (Mary Medrick, playing expertly) to those bottle-balancing hoofers weren't wonderful. They all are, making this Fiddler a fine, if long (three hours), evening of heartwarming musical storytelling.

Derived from turn-of-the-last-century Yiddish tales by Sholom Aleichem, the musical's book by Joseph Stein is built around weary Tevye's amusing conversations with God. As a poor Orthodox Jewish milkman in the Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, Tevye can barely support his five daughters and nagging wife (Leslie Alexander). His cart horse gone gimpy, Tevye has to pull the milk wagon himself, stopping, exhausted, to wonder what life would be like "If I Were a Rich Man."

That is Tevye's "wish song," which, as in most good musicals, comes right at the top of the show. He dreams of free time to be idle, to "biddy-biddy-bum." Money would bring respect from the village rabbi and maybe a better seat in the synagogue. Winding up the song, he looks to heaven and asks, "Lord who made the lion and the lamb, You decreed I should be what I am/Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?"

Well, it would certainly spoil this show, for a poor Tevye is more entertaining than a rich one.

Jason Kane, shoulders slumped like those of a man who's put a lot of miles of cart-dragging on them, has the earthy heft, facial foliage and twinkly grin to create a lovable Tevye. He comes from the heavy-gaited Zero Mostel school of Tevyes, as opposed to the more recent Harvey Fierstein and Alfred Molina Tevyes in the 2004-'05 New York revival. (One of Broadway's most-repeated shows, there'll be another Fiddler there in fall 2015, directed by Bartlett Sher and possibly starring Broadway veteran Danny Burstein.)

Ever hopeful of better lives for his offspring, Tevye asks God for help finding good husbands for his girls, but he hedges his bet by enlisting the village matchmaker, Yente (Deborah Brown). Trouble is, the best prospects she has are fat old widowers like Lazar the butcher (Greg Dulcie). Tevye's daughters don't want arranged marriages, so one by one they defy their dad. Spunky eldest daughter Tzeitel (Katie Moyes Williams) weds her childhood sweetheart, Motel (Seth Womack), a humble tailor. Hodel (Mary McElree) falls for fiery Perchik (Anthony Forrino), an itinerant teacher espousing radical Marxist ideas. Middle daughter Chava (Jad Saxton) elopes with non-Jew Fyedka (Dennis Wees), part of the constabulary conducting pogroms on villages including Anatevka.

Using gentle comedy and that lilting, minor-key klezmer-inspired score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler seamlessly integrates its story lines. First, it gives a glimpse into the long-ago world of Russian Jews trying to uphold ancient rituals, as laid out in the first big dance number, "Tradition." Second, it depicts the religion-centered home life of Tevye's large family and his and Golde's uneasy transition into 20th century ideas about the rights of women, mainly their daughters' desires to be educated and to marry for love. (In one of the show's funniest scenes, Tevye invents a ghoulish nightmare to convince Golde that Tzeitel should marry the tailor and not the butcher.) Third, it hints at the beginning of the mass migration of European Jews to America in the early 1900s. At the end of Fiddler, Anatevka's persecuted families, forced out of their homes, are heading toward the voyage to Ellis Island.

Now half a century old, Fiddler's songs, stories and characters hold up better than many musicals born in the 1960s. Much of its score is on the soundtrack of our lives. Sesame Street turned "If I Were a Rich Man" into "If I Were the Letter B." Tevye's wedding song for Tzeitel, "Sunrise, Sunset," was played at so many ceremonies in the 1960s and '70s, it became a cliché. And if the idea of matchmakers like Yente seemed quaint in 1964, now they're all over reality TV, matching millionaires and pretty gold-diggers.

What defines Fiddler on the Roof as a global classic and not just an American one, and what makes Lyric's production of it so satisfying, is that at its core, it's a well-written show about the power of love. Tevye's already a rich man, if wealth is measured by how much he's loved and respected by family and friends.

If little things aren't always perfect in the Lyric version, no matter. Peasant boots look too new. Light cues go wonky. Yente drawls like the old Southern Jewish lady in Driving Miss Daisy. But pish tosh. It's a wonderful show. Grab a bottle off a hat and let's drink to love and life. L'chaim!

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner