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Goodspeed's "Fiddler" a delightful, intimate take on classic musical

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'Fiddler on the Roof' at Goodspeed Musicals

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Fiddler on the Roof’ refashioned as a chamber musical? How could this Broadway behemoth (for years it held the record as the longest running musical) possibly be repackaged to fit on the Goodspeed Opera House’s smallish stage, where it is playing now through September 12?

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In actuality, all it took was some insightful refocusing by director Rob Ruggiero, with the net result being a “Fiddler on the Roof” as big and as sumptuous as any of the previous shows that have played at Goodspeed Musicals. There’s no need to approach seeing the show with any trepidation. Audiences will find evocative nineteenth century costumes of the poor Jewish villagers of Anetevka (thanks to costume designer Alejo Vietti), marvelous orchestrations of Dan DeLange that capture the robust sound and ethnic flavor of the legendary Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock score, and choreography by the talented Parker Esse’s that recreates much of Jerome Robbins’ original dances. Ruggiero even supplies an actual fiddler who's not only found on the roof, but frequently blends in among the cast as well.

But the most noticeable difference in Ruggiero’s production is a “Fiddler on the Roof” that is more intimate and more human than most previous productions. Whenever the Tevye of actor Adam Heller speaks to God in his quiet, determined way, it’s almost embarrassing to listen to the seemingly easy-going milkman being so vulnerable and yearning in these private conversations. Heller’s Tevye is both devout and serious, but the actor’s appearance skews a bit younger than previous actors in this role. As a result, he seems more open to the changes that are undermining his community’s traditions and impacting his family even more so. It’s a strength that he will need to share with his brethren as the musical progresses.

In addition, Ruggiero sharpens the musical’s focus to concentrate on Tevye’s family and the impact of societal changes on him, his devoted and long-suffering wife Golde, and in particular on their three oldest daughters. In a clever move by the director, the female members of the show’s ensemble portray predominantly the older women of the community. By assuring that Tevye’s five daughters are essentially the youngest women on stage, he is able to concentrate our attention on them. The efforts of Tevye and Golde, played with a wise determination by the marvelous and very believable Lori Wilner, to assure a satisfactory and protective future for their daughters, mirrors the community’s interests in maintaining their traditions amidst a time of great uncertainty and growing danger for Russia’s Jewish population.

Thus, the story of the Russian oppression of the Jews as seen through the eyes of single family takes on a compelling urgency. The enterprise is based upon a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem, published collectively as “Tevye and His Daughters,” so this focus is warranted and appropriate.

This is not to suggest that this “Fiddler” is all serious going. All of the warmth and humor in Joseph Stein’s book is here, especially through the antics of such stock characters as the busy body matchmaker, Yente, played by Cheryl Stern, to the seemingly inattentive yet discerning rabbi of Jeremy Lawrence, and to the overconfident businessman Lazar Wolf of John Payonk who plans to marry Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel. Ruggiero is especially successful in his staging of the musical’s funniest showpiece, as Tevye invents several visitations from beyond the grave by Goldie’s grandmother and Lazar Wolf’s first wife in order to convince Goldie that their daughter really belongs with the poor tailor Motel.

One forgets how much familiar and glorious music originated with “Fiddler on the Roof.” Michael O’Flaherty conducts a seven member orchestra that sounds twice the size and does the music proud, as does the entire 25-person cast, who make such choral numbers as “Sunrise, Sunset” and the show’s opening salvo, “Tradition,” sound so robust. But one is also touched by the three eldest daughters’ plaintive “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” as Barrie Kreinik’s Tzeitel, Elizabeth DeRosea’s Hodel, and Jen Brissman’s Chava first dream of finding the perfect mate then confront the reality of the available suitors within their small community. David Perlman’s Motel gets to shine on a genuinely heartfelt rendition of “Miracle of Miracles,” while DeRosa offers a tender, heartbreaking version of “Far From the Home I Love,” as daughter Hodel embarks on an uncertain journey to join her imprisoned activist boyfriend Perchik in remote Siberia.

Heller and Wilner have a set of lovely duets, one in each act, which add some depth and integrity to the couple’s relationship. “The Sabbath Prayer (May The Lord Bless and Protect Us)” is a gentle lullaby of preparation for the sacred meal, while Teyve’s questioning “Do You Love Me?” acknowledges the strains and problems of any 20+ year relationship, while simultaneously cementing the love between the two.

Heller emerges as the heart of the show and his fresh take on Tevye, a part he has never played previously, is quite rewarding. He is not as humorously overconfident as other actors in the role have been, but instead depicts a man who is struggling with the challenges of his time and trying to make sense of them with the help of his God. Heller’s Tevye is an outright honorable and generous man, who yearns for the wisdom that can help him maneuver through life and assure his family’s welfare. As he sings "If I Were A Rich Man" one can hear the years of effort and work he has put forward toward this goal while allowing himself a few brief moments in front of his milk wagon to imagine the improbable.

Ruggiero manages to convey the more dramatic aspects of “Fiddler” through Michael Schweikardt’s minimalist yet remarkably effective set design. Schweikardt has fashioned a line of seven or eight birch trees spread across the back of the stage, fronted by two tall, flexible wood structures that can serve as doors, gates, or walls, in front of which smaller set pieces such as Tevye’s kitchen, Motel’s tailor shop or a bench and flag for the train station can be placed. This accommodates the space needs of several of the very elaborate dance numbers including the boisterous “To Life” set in the local tavern and the celebratory dances of the wedding scene between Tzeitel and Motel.

Both of these numbers, however, are more than dances. They serve to depict the various undercurrents at play in the show’s plot. At the Inn, Tevye and his friends, saluting the arranged marriage of his eldest, are closely watched by local Russians, who eventually engage the celebrants in a sort of challenge between historically Russian and Jewish dances. At the wedding, the revolutionary Perchik is seen monitoring the celebration who then slyly removes the stanchion separating the men from the women, shattering tradition by asking the women to dance. Ruggiero stages both scenes with the requisite underlying tension, particularly as the local constabulary arrives to disrupt the wedding further. Even Ruggiero’s and Esse’s buoyant “Tradition” subtly inserts the nascent tension within the community, as the neighboring Russians are introduced who are bearing just the merest hints of glares and disdain.

Ultimately, however, “Fiddler on the Roof” is a story of resilience, which is conveyed quite smartly throughout this production. Despite the challenges and obstacles we have witnessed, one leaves the theatre filled with hope, even though we are well aware of the struggles and barriers that Jews will face around the world in the years ahead. That’s the power of Aleichem’s stories, the music and the lyrics, and the authenticity of this production.

For tickets and information, call the Goodspeed box office at 860.873.8668 or visit their website at www.goodspeed.org.

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