ST. PETERSBURG — There's a moment early in Fiddler on the Roof when you might think the whole story about tradition, arranged marriages and ignorant cruelty is hopelessly outdated. Surely, in a modern world we've moved beyond that.
But you'll only think that briefly. There's so much to chew on, smile about and shed tears over in the classic 1964 musical now at Freefall Theatre that you'll find yourself mentally bouncing back and forth between 1905 Russia and today. Change is inescapable, and you need only read today's headlines to know that people the world over continue to be persecuted, even killed, for their beliefs.
Freefall artistic director Eric Davis has turned this sprawling musical gem about a poor Jewish family in Czarist Russia into an intimate affair. His inventive staging on a small stage works on nearly every level. Freefall's ever-changing black-box theater is configured in the round, which helps to populate the village, as the audience sees across the stage to other faces. Occasionally, the cast interacts with the audience, drawing patrons further into the story of the poor milkman Tevye.
Fiddler is more traditionally performed on a bigger stage with large cast and full orchestra. No room for that at Freefall so Davis has scaled back both, and integrated the musicians into the village. They are witnesses to every joy and sorrow, moving around the actors seamlessly.
From the initial signature violin solo onward, the music never falters. And that's key for Fiddler, whose score (music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) is one of the most familiar in musical theater. You may be tempted to sing along with Tradition; Matchmaker, Matchmaker; If I Were a Rich Man; and Sunrise, Sunset, but please don't. The cast is full of remarkable voices.
Musical director Michael Raabe, who has worked extensively at Freefall since it opened in 2010, deserves double-bravos for his efforts, including the selection of musicians. Their work is top-notch.
The musicians are matched by an able cast, led by David Mann as Tevye. Mann is at turns charming and despondent; comical and commanding. When he looks to the sky to talk with God, mostly asking him "why?" our eyes follow and we too wait for a response. Meghan Colleen Moroney plays Tevye's wife, Golde, with equal parts iron fist and mother's worry.
Fiddler hangs on the stories of Tevye and Golde's three eldest daughters, Tzeitel (Georgia Mallory Guy), Hodel (Hannah Benitez) and Chava (Anna Maureen Tobin, who is the daughter of Tampa Bay Times education editor Thomas C. Tobin). The young women yearn to find love their own way, rejecting the efforts of matchmaker Yente, played with fine comic turn by Susan Haldeman. The trio provides so much heart, along with sweetly strong voices, that ours break for them when they plead with Tevye for permission to lead the lives they want. Guy is especially effective as the oldest sister who sets in motion the younger girls' revolts. Oddly, the sisters and some cast members don't speak with accents while Teyve, Golde, Yente and others do.
Eric Davis has a track record of staging traditional shows with a twist, such as he did with Man of La Mancha and Cabaret. For Fiddler he employs a variety of puppets to haunt a dream sequence, to play the parts of minor characters and to scamper the stage as playful barnyard animals. It was a success in the dream sequence, but inconsequential, though well executed, elsewhere.
Four small video screens are mounted up high and used to show the violence that interrupts the wedding celebration of Tzeitel and her husband-by-choice, Motel (Nick Orfanella). Those images don't elicit as much tension as actual police barging in to carry out the government's threatened purge of the Jewish village. On a small stage, Davis' choice is understandable, but not wholly satisfying.
Still this cast, both musicians and actors, make up for small distractions. The theater was about three-quarters full on the Sunday matinee of opening weekend. Freefall's Fiddler on the Roof deserves to be playing to a full house.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.