Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Fiddler on the Roof" is about wrenching changes in a place that hasn't changed much over the years. The 1964 work also is one of the classics of the American musical theater, full of Jerry Bock's memorable music (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick), characters to care about and an intriguing story (book by Joseph Stein, based on stories by Sholom Aleichem). Broadway By the Bay captures all of those assets in its production directed by Marc Jacobs.
It begins simply with the Fiddler (a graceful Joseph Felix) playing a tune on a rooftop while Tevye the milkman (Jamie Torcellini) introduces his village, Anatevka, Russia, sometime around the turn of the last century. One word explains how the villagers manage, he says, "Tradition." At that, the large cast begins dancing onto the stage, holding hands in a single line and singing that spirited anthem. The choral work, overseen by music director Attilio Tribuzi, is full-sounding and well balanced.
As explained in the song, everyone in the village knows how he or she fits in and lives life in accord with the accepted patterns. Marriages are arranged by a matchmaker, Yente (Laurie Strawn), and approved by the parents. The would-be mates have no say.
Marriage is an important topic to Tevye because he and his wife, Golde (Corinne Kason), have five daughters, three of them old enough to marry. Tevye agrees to Yente's suggestion of a marriage between Tzeitel (Stacy Sanders), his eldest daughter, and Lazar Wolf (Benjamin Latham), the much older but prosperous village butcher. Tzeitel has other ideas, though. She and Motel (Zach Trimmer), a poor, unassertive tailor, are in love and want to get married.
It takes Tevye time to get used to the idea, but he relents. The next daughter, Hodel (Kristen Vellinger), falls in love with Perchik (Eric Black), a student with revolutionary ideas. Again Tevye relents, though reluctantly. However, he draws the line when Chava (Aubrey Davis) falls in love with a Gentile, Fyedka (Justin Basl), a Russian soldier. In the meantime, the village is disturbed by news that Jews are being ordered from their homes and villages in other parts of Russia. Soon the order reaches Anatevka, and the villagers sadly leave their homes and head off to places like America and Jerusalem.
Despite the poignant story, the show is full of humorous moments, usually involving Tevye, who often talks to God and who is given to saying, "As the good book says, ..." The role was originated by the larger-than-life Zero Mostel, but the more diminutive Torcellini puts his own stamp on it. Although he's a gifted physical comedian, Torcellini is low-key, using small gestures and his expressive face to deliver much of the humor. His approach works well and avoids overshadowing the other actors.
The cast is generally well balanced. The singing also is generally good but not outstanding except for Vellinger as Hodel and Davis as Chava. They blend well in "Matchmaker," and Vellinger displays good technique in the touching "Far From the Home I Love." Another standout singer is Basl as Fyedka, whose clear tenor stands out in "To Life." The dancing, choreographed by the ever-inventive Berle Davis, is terrific. The influence of Jerome Robbins, the show's original choreographer and director, can be seen, but Davis adds his own touches and, as usual, makes everyone look good.
The production, seen several days after the opening, is inspired and energetic -- that despite an oppressive Bay Area heat wave that week and no air conditioning in the theater. The lighting is by Chad Bonaker, the sound by Sound on Stage, the flexible sets by the Set Company. The costumes come from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera.
Even if one has seen "Fiddler" many times, it's always enjoyable, if only for songs like those already named as well as "If I Were a Rich Man," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Sabbath Prayer" and "Miracle of Miracles." Every scene has its gems, which director Jacobs and company have carefully polished.