The Tony Award-winning Broadway classic Fiddler on the Roof may take place in 1905 imperial Russia, but its themes of bigotry, religious persecution and irrational threats of mass expulsions from the country are as timely today as they were more than a century ago.
The 38-member cast and 12-piece orchestra in the Stage West Community Playhouse production of the musical playing in Spring Hill through Jan. 22 do an impressive job with the show, despite a sometimes languid tempo and a couple of directorial missteps that lessen the impact of key scenes. Some tightening up and a more brisk pace would not only improve the feel of the production, but also cut precious minutes from its almost three-hour length.
That said, there are enough sparkling performances, energetic production numbers and touching scenes to make up for these blips. Well, almost.
Fiddler — a reference to the precarious situation of a fiddler balancing himself on a steep roof — is the story of dairyman Tevye (Dalton Benson) struggling to support his wife of 25 years, Golde (Lynda Benson), and their five daughters, even as the horse that pulls his dairy cart goes lame, his meager income isn't enough to provide dowries for his daughters, the traditions that sustain his resolve are crumbling and the world around his beloved little town of Anatevka is in chaos.
Tevye consoles himself with personal chats with God (If I Were a Rich Man) and arguments with himself — "On the one hand . . . on the other hand . . . " — and Benson is most charming during these moments. In dealing with his family and the townspeople, though, Tevye appears grumpy, demanding and bombastic, a convincing cover for the tender heart that dwells within. It's a fine line to walk, and Dalton Benson pulls it off quite satisfactorily, though his physical moves show that Tevye is growing weary from all the challenges.
The first comes from his eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Nicki Poulis, who, to her credit, took over the role late in rehearsals due to the departure of the original actor and does a fine job of it), who insists on marrying for love and not to the man of Tevye's choosing, the elderly Lazar Wolf (a delightful Gregory Brown). A second comes from daughter Hodel (a radiant Jennifer Agnelli), who chooses her own love, the scholar Perchik (a charismatic Jay Garcia). And the third, which hits at the very heart of the story, happens when his third daughter, Chava (a delicately lovely Evy Poulis), marries a Russian soldier, Fyedka (Chay Nott), and Tevye declares her dead as far as he's concerned.
Agnelli's Far From the Home I Love is a show highlight, as are Dalton Benson's tender Chavaleh (Little Bird), as a graceful Danielle Clark dances in the shadows behind him, and the Bensons' (they're married in real life) Tevye and Golde as they wonder Do You Love Me? after 25 years of an arranged marriage.
Choreographer Andi Sperduti-Garner's big production number, To Life, performed by the men (and women playing men's roles) fills the stage with energy and excitement, and the wedding dancers' steps are a swirl of joy and happiness as the tender Sunrise, Sunset morphs into a spirited celebration. The Tevye's Dream sequence is, arguably, a tad overdone, sometimes overshadowing fine performances by Terri Stenger as Grandma Tzeitel and Nicki Poulis as Fruma-Sarah, Lazar Wolf's late wife.
An especially appealing performance comes from Chris Venable as Yente, the matchmaker. Venable delivers lines as though she's just chatting, not acting, and is a real pleasure to watch. The gifted Sam Petricone is exceedingly effective as the conflicted but stern Russian Constable, who's also wrestling with his gut instincts as he follows orders, instead of his feelings, when he "disciplines" his lifelong friends, the villagers of Anatevka. Petricone's Constable seems as conflicted as Tevye, yet in a reprehensible way, showing the clear contrast between the two belief systems.
With all this talent and energy, it's unfortunate that two key scenes are so clumsily staged that their impact is gutted: first, the revelation of the "newcomer" at Motel's shop, which should come as a surprise; but, more important, Tevye's acceptance of Chava and Fyedka, the very apex of the story, which should be emphasized and dramatic, but is sort of a side-of-stage throwaway instead.
Fiddler's content is appropriate for all ages, but because of its length, would be most enjoyed by ages 13 and older.