Far from being simply a nostalgic tribute to salt-of-the-earth culture, Fiddler suggests that in a little corner of early 20th-century Russia, the way of life includes petty feuds, the subjugation of women and the occasional anti-Semitic pogrom. Primarily joy shoots through Jewish Theatre of the South's production, causing it to gloss over some of the play's darker corners.
As Fiddler's opening song, "Tradition," spells out, the shtetl of Anatevka stands on convention. When the ensemble voices the classic roles of fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, they raise their fingers and stamp the ground, as if to prove that tradition provides their literal foundation. Composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick even turn Jewish customs into material for hummable numbers like "Sabbath Prayer" and "Sunrise, Sunset's" wedding ceremony.
Bruce Evers plays the milkman Tevye like Anatevka on two feet. The father to five daughters, Tevye remains one of Broadway's archetypal "life force" characters, and Evers, a mainstay of Georgia Shakespeare, can fill the milkman's boots. While neither a nimble dancer nor a honey-voiced singer, Evers can sell a song, make an aside to the audience and boom with laughter while never sounding phony.
His leonine beard and fatherly imperiousness surrounds a soft, sentimental center. When his daughters (Jerrica Knight-Catania, Rita Dolphin and Rachel Bodenstein) each approach him with different marital wishes, Tevye slips into internal monologues, announced by singing the word "Tradition"; the lyrical reprise illustrates how deeply customs runs in his character.
Evers truly excels not with his castmates, but with the Almighty. Tevye doesn't pray so much as engage in respectful, ingratiating, it's-just-us-guys chats with the deity. Fiddler features an extremely appealing idea of piety. When Tevye grants meek suitor Motel (Brandon O'Dell) permission to marry one of his daughters, Motel bursts with the song "Miracle of Miracles," drawing examples of biblical heroes as approachable role models. The villagers of Fiddler may have strained relationships between each other, but they're on great terms with God.
Director Jessica Phelps West brings out the play's sense of fun, embellished by the Klezmer flavorings of the violinist and accordion. When Tevye recounts a spooky dream to his wife, Golde (Agnes Harty), the ghostly visions include singing puppets, one the size of a carnival costume. Rita Dolphin sings the role of one ghost, and in a testament to her vitality, we look at Dolphin, not the hand puppet. Harty sings "Do You Love Me?" with great clarity and tenderness, one of the only times Fiddler makes full use of her talent.
Choreographer Jen MacQueen reproduces some of the exciting Russian folk dances from Broadway's Fiddler, yet at times keeps the cast at a standstill. The ensemble remains weirdly rooted during the final number, "Anatevka," and the play's whole ending feels a little too cheerful. The villagers face upheaval that means the end of their narrow world, yet the production emphasizes the hopeful grace notes more than the sense of calamity.
Perhaps such sunniness was unavoidable, given that Fiddler on the Roof celebrates both Jewish Theatre of the South's 10th anniversary and the musical's 40th year. Staging Fiddler clearly represents a long-anticipated fulfillment for the Jewish playhouse, and conjures a festive, family-reunion atmosphere that the production never quite escapes. But you can't blame the theater for milking Evers' enthusiasm and Fiddler's fresh social themes. It feels like a family thing.
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