I was a teenager when my parents took me to see Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway with Zero Mostel and Beatrice Arthur in 1964. I didn't realize then that my relationship with this sweet, heartfelt, unsettling musical would become a lifelong affair.
Whenever Fiddler was around, it was like going to the synagogue on a Jewish holy day: No questions asked, I just went. The story of a Jewish village in Russia at the outset of the Russian Revolution, and of Tevye the milkman, his wife, and their five daughters was a part of me, but it extends to all Americans who are here because their ancestors were chased out, dragged away, unwanted, terrorized, or just plain hated.
So I have spent many an evening with the good, ill-fated people of the town of Anatevka. But Wednesday night, at the opening of the new Walnut Street Theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof, I felt the way I did when I saw it as kid. Bruce Lumpkin's nuanced, thoroughly considered production is terrific. Throughout it I was hearing lines I've heard time and again delivered with a freshness and sincerity that made them a surprise and a delight. I fell for them in a new way, hook, line and mezuzah.
As the years have passed, the show's characters, drawn from the stories of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem in a script by Joseph Stein, have become caricatures of themselves in stage versions. But not at the Walnut. As Tevye, Mark Jacoby is a revelation, a day-to-day guy with little triumphs and lots of peccadillos, a genuine person. Jacoby may seem physically thin for the role Mostel created, but there's a lot more meat to his Tevye than anyone has a right to expect, or even ask for. Mary Martello's version of Golde, his wife, is likewise real, not the one-dimensional, eye-rolling shrew she's become in many productions.
Everything about the production - including the superbly sung and staged numbers by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and a Russian bottle dance guaranteed to stop the show nightly (Michelle Gaudette's choreography) - draws its power from a sincerity that makes its characters not only real for their time (1905), but also for now; this is true even for the cartoonishly written Yente, brought to real life by Denise Whelan. We sense that we are witnessing not just history but a cavalcade of human nature, passing under set designer John Farrell's evocative, gliding roofs.
And in this production, the fiddler (Alexander Sovronsky) - a symbol of life's precariousness - is a constant presence, looming and playing throughout, mostly ignored, or maybe denied, but always there, always observing. (At the beginning of Act 2, Sovronsky plays a classic Yiddish melody that will rend many a heart.)
The older daughters (Rita Markova, Gianna Yanelli, Michaela Shuchman), their eventual suitors (Marcus Stevens, Nick Dalton, Christopher Brian Williams), and the rest of the cast (including Lee Golden as the rabbi, Jennie Eisenhower as a nasty spirit, and Bill Van Horn as the town butcher) all tie the production together and add to its strength. Somewhere, as they say in the show, there is a prayer for that.
Through July 18 at Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $10 to $75. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.EndText