You see the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof umpteen times, and you go again thinking, "How can I possibly enjoy the umpteenth-plus-one time?"
Then the lights go down, the denizens of the 1905 Russian Jewish village Anatevka come on stage singing the beautifully mood-setting Tradition, and you're once more drawn into one of the best shows ever written.
Thus it was opening night at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre, thanks to a majestically gentle performance by the bearlike Joshua Sussman as Tevye, the dairyman; many fine cast members, most notably the golden-voiced Zachary D. Gregus as Perchik, the student; a glorious re-creation of Jerome Robbins' original dances by choreographer Chris Sell; a lovely recorded accompaniment by genuine musical instruments - strings, woodwinds, percussion, instead of a sometimes tinny synthesizer - overseen by musical director Michael Ursua; some interesting stage movements by director Matthew McGee; and an impressive set by Tom Hansen.
Unfortunately, much of the fine work on stage was overshadowed for a sizable number of opening night patrons by the shrill, repetitive ululations/laughter of a single woman at the table behind us (please note, not at our table), whose annoying trill was the talk of the crowd at intermission (and, likely, over many a breakfast table the next morning). Management has an obligation to address such a distraction on behalf of the rest of us.
That said, this Fiddler is one to remember for many other reasons. Through the story of the hard-scrabble lives of Tevye, his hard-working wife Golde (Birdie Newman Katz) and their five daughters, Fiddler confronts the timeless problems of prejudice, hatred, bigotry and the challenges of a changing society (anything sound familiar here?). Even as his daughters break with centuries of tradition, marrying the men of their choice, instead of his, Tevye must also deal with the Russian Tsar's cruel suppression of his people.
The production is filled with shining moments: the athletic dancing of the Russian soldiers in To Life, when Tevye celebrates the engagement of his eldest daughter Tzeitel (Megan Wheeler) to the aging, but rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Rick Kistner); the energetic antics of the entire cast during Tevye's Dream; the heart-stopping moves during the dangerous Bottle Dance, when four dancers balance glass bottles on their heads as they perform extremely difficult and intricate moves; and the melancholy overtones of ballet to Little Bird, Tevye's lament for the daughter who took her challenge too far.
Notable also are Robert Micheli as a cheeky Motel, the tailor, who first defies Tevye to win the hand of Tzeitel; the beautiful voices of Lisa Bark as Hodel and Adreienne Bergeron as Chava, the second and third daughters; Alex Covington as a spunky Grandma Tzeitel, back from the grave; and Derek Baxter as a pushy Avram, the bookseller.
Note also Tevye and Golde's duet, Do You Love Me?, which is made more effective by director's McGee's unconventional staging and Tevye's gentle and vulnerable performance.
The production is not without some minor flaws - an anachronistically modern paper tea bag with a dangling label on it in an opening scene; a few misplaced body mikes that garble song lyrics or create echoes; and a few miscast or mishandled characters, particularly Dudley Saunderson, who hesitantly underplays what should be a reluctantly aggressive Constable, and Troy Lafon, who dramatically overplays Nachum, the Beggar, making him seem sinister and more significant than the character deserves.
On balance, though, this Fiddler is a joy, with enough wonderful moments to make the nearly three-hour show seem to fly by.
If you go
Fiddler on the Roof, matinees and evenings through Nov. 15 at Show Palace Dinner Theatre, 16128 U.S. 19, Hudson. Dinner and show, $46; show only, $34.95; ages 12 and younger, $24.95 and $23.45, plus tax and tip. Call (727) 863-7949 in west Pasco; toll-free 1-888-655-7469.