Forty years have passed since "Fiddler on the Roof" opened, and there's still plenty of life in this big musical, as shown in a three-hour performance Saturday night at the Lied Center.
An energetic cast of 31, backed by a fine six-piece orchestra, sang and danced its way through the show's 17 numbers, bringing the audience to its feet at the evening's end.
The sets by James Noone are ingenious and well-constructed, with cottages and workshops that unfold to reveal their interiors, and are easily wheeled offstage as needed. The proscenium arch is rimmed with weathered doors, windows and shutters that suggest the rest of the village. Two tall trees (with removable foliage as the season requires) would have been effective except they swung queasily and distractingly from left to right throughout several scenes. Lighting by Hugh Hallinan is very effective, with charming dappled sunrises, dusky blue evenings and wonderfully intimate candlelit pageants, as in the Sabbath scene.
A good "Fiddler" rests on a good Tevye, and this show had the right man in John Preece, who has played the part more than 1,100 times. It's a demanding role, keeping the actor onstage and active in almost every scene. Preece's energy and assurance, his sturdy barrel frame, and his flexible and tireless baritone voice, rendered the gruff, tender and volatile Tevye to perfection.
Tevye's "Dream," which he invents to break off the match between his daughter Tzeitel and Lazar Wolf, the butcher, is a masterpiece of costume and dance as the cast swirls fantastically about the stage. The tiny Julie Brooks, who also plays Bielke, appears memorably in whiteface as Grandma Tzeitel, and Jessica Harwood does a turn as the nightmarish Fruma-Sarah. Credit also goes to the nameless stalwart who holds the "giant" Fruma-Sarah on his shoulders while executing dips, glides and pirouettes.
The Jerome Robbins choreography, reproduced by director/choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes, keeps the stage continuously in motion. The contrast between the shtetl residents' exuberant vitality and the Russian soldiers' sinuous grace is nicely established through their dance scenes, which peak in the Wedding Dance and Bottle Dance that end Act 1. The latter, featuring vigorous steps by four dancers while balancing wine bottles on their hats, had the audience gasping with admiration.
Jeffrey Victor as Perchik, the "radical" outsider from Kiev, plays the part with studied nuance; his manner of speech and movement set him apart from the earthier villagers. His "Now I Have Everything" in Act 2 also displays a melodious tenor voice. And Jessika Graff turns in a convincing performance as the snappish and spirited Hodel, his love interest.
"Fiddler" presents the particular plight of Russian Jewry under the czars and foreshadows the Holocaust that follows decades later. But its central theme is not limited to those times or peoples: It is the phenomenon of social and cultural change that the whole world has experienced and continues to wrestle with, whether in nations, villages or families. Tevye's repeated "on the one hand ... on the other hand" soliloquies resonate for the entire audience and give this play its power.
Dean Bevan is professor emeritus of English at Baker University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.