‘Fiddler on the Roof’ delivers perfect match of familiar, fresh

November 13, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Jennifer Weingarten and Eric Polani Jensen star as daughter and father in Village Theatre’s ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ By Jay Koh/Village Theatre

“Fiddler on the Roof” is rooted in a bleak era and setting — circa 1905 czarist Russia, a bastion of anti-Semitic sentiment — and the plot only turns grimmer as the acts progress.

The musical bears a reputation as a downer and, on the surface, “Fiddler on the Roof” seems like a strange choice for Village Theatre’s holiday offering.

But “Fiddler on the Roof” also shares essential truths about family and, as lead character Tevye is fond to point out, tradition — important tenets in a season often focused on everything but.

Scribes Joseph Stein and Jeffrey Bock ladled on Borscht Belt humor to introduce audiences to the population of Anatevka, a shtetl, or village. The numbers “Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man” deserve entries in the Great American Songbook.

In the Village Theatre outing, director David Ira Goldstein helms a musical both familiar and fresh.

Poor Jewish milkman Tevye — Eric Polani Jensen in a knockout performance — is the pathologically upbeat protagonist.

Tevye is easy to portray as a fool, a simpleton unwilling to face the changes in the shtetl and beyond. Jensen, however, respects the role and adds depth to the character — cheerful acceptance of ancient customs, anguish at the changes in Anatevka and a dignity as Tevye’s faith is shaken again and again.

In the role of Tevye’s wife Golde, Bobbi Kotula blunts Golde’s sharp edges just enough to balance toughness and tenderness. Golde, left to a less-talented actress, could come across as spiteful, rather than tart.

If you go

‘Fiddler on the Roof’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Through Dec. 30
  • Showtimes vary
  • $22 to $63
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

Together, Jensen and Kotula turn to a long-established offstage chemistry to liven the odd-couple pairing onstage.

Behind Jensen and Kotula is a capable supporting cast led by Jennifer Weingarten, Emily Cawley and Mara Solar, as Tevye’s eldest daughters.

Weingarten delivers a laudable performance as she, as firstborn Tzeitel, startles Tevye by refusing to join the shtetl’s age-old matchmaking tradition.

The mega-talented Aaron Finley, barely recognizable beneath Leon Trotsky spectacles and a revolutionary’s cap, is Perchick, a radical and a harbinger of looming change.

Finley, a Village Theatre regular, manages to turn the egghead character into a sort of heartthrob.

Laura Kenny, as the shtetl’s matchmaker Yente, offers comic relief as she hobbles around the stage, offering advice for mismatched unions.

Like Yente, “Fiddler on the Roof” missteps from time to time.

Some actors employ Yiddish accents, but others sound as American as baseball. The disconnect distracts from otherwise solid performances.

The cast’s ebullience pulls attention from the occasionally clumsy choreography.

But the attention to detail throughout “Fiddler on the Roof” is commendable, from designer Cynthia Savage’s peasant costumes to the roving fiddler used to illustrate Music Director Bruce Monroe’s arrangements.

Bill Forrester’s inventive set uses birches to subtly convey the change of seasons, from leafy to bare. Elsewhere, colorful tapestries animate a set created from a palette limited to beiges, browns and grays.

The stage includes a rotating platform underfoot — a nifty metaphor for the sudden changes in Anatevka and beyond.

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