Theater is an institution steeped in tradition. Some might even call it superstition. Actors wish each other luck with the salutation “break a leg,” it's considered bad luck to utter the title character's name in Shakespeare's “Macbeth,” and whistling on stage is strongly discouraged.
Tradition also informs “Fiddler on the Roof,” an intriguing tale about life in a poor Russian village. Rules about their religious beliefs, how they dress and customs that are to be observed at wedding ceremonies govern their lives.
“Fiddler” brought the golden age of musical theater to a close, in much the same way that “Oklahoma!” launched it. It seems fitting then that “Fiddler” has returned to the state whose namesake began that era.
With a production that has been on the road for two years, one could understand, but not forgive, a cast that had lost much of its luster. The rigors of touring combined with an eight-shows-a-week schedule can take a toll on even the most energetic cast.
Happily, this Troika production has a palpable vitality and solid production values. Moreover, it offers patrons a chance to revisit a musical that offers a near perfect blend of poignancy, humor and great storytelling.
One's primary memory of “Fiddler on the Roof” is likely to be its score. “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset” have imprinted themselves on our collective consciousness for good reason. They're tuneful, they define character and they advance the plot — everything a good theater song should do.
What most people forget though is just how funny “Fiddler” is. And this accomplished cast wrings every bit of humor out of Joseph Stein's marvelous book. Most theater enthusiasts can predict most of the show's punch lines but they still elicit the desired response.
In much the same way that peasant life during early 20th century Russia had its hierarchy, this production reflects that in its casting. The men tend to make a stronger impression than the women.
Andrew Boza's Motel is an excitable but nervously timid tailor, Joshua Phan-Gruber's Perchik is an erudite student and Michael Shultz is subtly imposing and unflappable as Fyedka. David B. Springstead's Lazar Wolf is a nicely-crafted performance that allows the role of the butcher to seem more prominent than it is.
Gerri Weagraff is a tough and unwavering Golde, and Pamela D. Chabora is a scatterbrained and gossipy Yente. Brooke Hills, Sarah Sesler and Chelsey LeBel portray Golde's three eldest daughters with conviction if not always with distinction.
Any production of “Fiddler on the Roof” succeeds or fails on the strengths of the actor playing Tevye, a world-weary, impatient and exasperated milkman whose love for his family often wreaks havoc with his religious beliefs.
John Preece offers a nuanced and frequently humorous portrayal as Tevye, a man who talks to God and rationalizes opposing viewpoints with phrases that alternate between “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.”
Despite having played the role more than 1,900 times, Preece never gives the impression that he's switched into autopilot mode. His gestures, facial expressions, line readings and mumblings are priceless yet always endearing.
Preece was experiencing vocal difficulties opening night — coughs and throat clearings punctuated his delivery — yet his voice always had ample weight, projection and a fine sense of musicality.
Revisiting “Fiddler” reminds us that classic shows are both timeless and universal, a rare combination that emerges in surprisingly few musicals. As Motel might say, “Fiddler” is “a wonder of wonders, a miracle of miracles.”
— Rick Rogers