TAMPA — If, after 38 years of playing Tevye, Chaim Topol has lost enthusiasm for his signature role, it certainly doesn't show.
Now 73 years old, Topol has performed the role of the charmingly haggard peasant in Fiddler on the Roof thousands of times, including his turn in the 1971 film. The current tour, which will be at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center through Sunday, is officially called his farewell to the role.
Still robust, charismatic and possessed of a rich baritone voice, as impressive in speech as it is in song, Topol brings considerable fire to a lukewarm production of a decent musical.
Fiddler has its share of great songs, most notably If I Were a Rich Man, Sunrise, Sunset and Matchmaker, Matchmaker.
But it also has more than its share of clunkers. In fact, other than those three familiar songs, few numbers are appealing.
The story is engaging but predictable: Tevye, who values tradition above almost all else, has to deal with change. It's the early 20th century, his Russian village is threatened by czarists and his daughters want to marry men they love rather than husbands picked by their parents.
The show is really about Tevye's reaction to events that swirl around him. He's a much more complex character than you'll usually find in musicals, forceful but bewildered, headstrong but willing to change. The actor in that role has to carry the weight of the show, and Topol makes it all look easy.
The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate, but there are really no performances that make an impression. To be fair, none of the roles really allows actors to stand out, and most of the songs are too unwieldy to allow singers to shine. Mary Stout has some funny moments as Yente the matchmaker, but most of the acting and singing is simply solid and professional.
The dancing is another story. Jerome Robbins' choreography is wondrous and performed here with precision and joy. Other than Topol's performance, it's the unquestionable highlight.
Lovely low-tech sets by Steve Gilliam and costumes by Tony Ray Hicks that are necessarily plain but still attractive and evocative help the production get through its many slow spots, as does the performance of a wonderful 13-piece pit orchestra. Also noteworthy is the technically immaculate sound design by Duncan Robert Edwards.
All that is ancillary, though. The show is about Topol as Tevye, and no matter how high your expectation, he does not disappoint.