`Fiddler' still relies on its old traditions

Review: Although it remains entertaining, this 40-year-old musical is also showing its age.

March 07, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The theme of tradition runs through Fiddler on the Roof, and it's become a tradition to mount road companies that are carbon copies of the 1964 original.

Like at least two other touring productions that have played Baltimore in the last decade, the production at the Mechanic Theatre is directed and choreographed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, re-creating Jerome Robbins' original staging. Even the sets are based on Boris Aronson's original designs (though they look rather scanty, especially the sparse, two-dimensional trees).

In other words, there's very little that's truly original about this production - including its star. Theodore Bikel has never played the lead role of Tevye, the Russian-Jewish milkman, on Broadway. But he's played it just about everywhere else - more than 1,600 times, including the show's previous jaunt through Baltimore, six years ago.

Now 77, Bikel has a beard that's almost white and a weary manner that, while appropriate for portraying an overworked milkman, lacks the spark and spontaneity needed to convey the hopes and dreams contained in such classic Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick numbers as "If I Were a Rich Man."

Indeed, there's a subdued quality to much of this production, whose cast features a number of other Fiddler veterans, including local actors John Preece (now playing Lazar, the butcher, but seen here in 1992 as Tevye) and Eileen Tepper, who seems a bit older than her character - the milkman's almost 20-year-old eldest daughter, Tzeitel.

That said, it should be acknowledged that the production is a competent revival of this vintage musical, adapted by librettist Joseph Stein from Sholem Aleichem's stories about Tevye, his five dowry-less daughters and the rising threat of religious persecution in a small Russian village in the early 20th century.

There are some lovely performances, particularly those of Sara Schmidt and Rachel Jones as Hodel and Chava, two of Tevye's other daughters, and Jonathan Hadley as Perchik, the radical-minded student Hodel loves.

Jones brings great tenderness to her solo, "Far From the Home I Love," sung while Hodel and her father wait for the train that will take her to Siberia, where Perchik is a political prisoner. And the final scene between Chava and Tevye (who has written her off as dead after her marriage to a non-Jew) still tugs at the heartstrings.

In addition, many of the comic interludes continue to work well - especially the dream sequence in which Tevye conjures up a couple of ghosts to convince his wife that Tzeitel should marry the impoverished tailor she loves. Spirited Mimi Bensinger also deserves note in the comic-relief role of Yente, the gossipy matchmaker.

When Fiddler was new, it must have been a revelation to see Aronson's Marc Chagall-inspired sets and Robbins' folk-flavored choreography. But nearly four decades later, surely there's something new to reveal.

After all, though tradition is the main theme of Fiddler on the Roof, the show isn't about hidebound adherence. In the end, Tevye discovers that sometimes it's necessary to break tradition and adapt to change. No one can deny that Fiddler is a great American musical, but isn't that all the more reason to learn from Tevye's example and try a different interpretation?

Fiddler on the Roof

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $22.50-$70

Call: 410-752-1200

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