Since its debut in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has held a certain special status among Broadway shows. It is the Beastie Boys of musicals — beloved, offbeat, wise and wiseacre-ish, slapstick hip. More times than I can count, the mere mention of Fiddler has caused a friend to break out in baritone: “If I were a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum…”
Despite being set in a besieged shtetl in 1905 Tsarist Russia — where the growing expulsion of Jews hints at a century of increasingly vicious and widespread anti-semitism — this tale about Tevye and his daughters is buoyed by a hard-won sense of loving happiness and joy in life. This joy derives, in part, from the tension struck between Jewish tradition and the advent of a very modern chaos. Fiddler, even against its fairly downbeat ending, just makes people happy. And Cottage Theatre’s current production, under the able direction of Peg Major, fully taps into the uplifting survivalist spirit of this classic. The show is a happy success.
At the center of Fiddler is the milkman Tevye, and Cottage pulls a minor coup here in casting Paul von Rotz for the role; he plays the robust paterfamilias perfectly, as equal parts happy-go-lucky King Lear and charming kvetch, a good man who rolls, sometimes haplessly, with the punches. Surrounding von Rotz is an enormous cast, and the fine performances among this ensemble of actors, ranging in age from infancy to respectable maturity, are too numerous here to mention. Let it be said that the entire cast, appropriately squeezed onto Alan Beck’s elegant sets, achieves a kind of kinetic energy, turning the Jewish ghetto into a gorgeously ramshackle theater of grand passions. A live orchestra, conducted by Larry Kenton, further provides a snap of immediacy. The music is spot-on.
For a community theater to mount such a hefty production, and to do it with such aplomb and fidelity to the spirit of the musical, is a rare treat. Sure, there are small glitches (if not everyone can do an Eastern European accent, perhaps none should), but this in no way detracts from the collective atmosphere achieved — an infectious atmosphere that finds just the right balance between the bittersweet and the hopeful. It would be difficult to encounter this Fiddler and not feel just a little biddy biddy better about life in general.
Fiddler on the Roof runs through April 27; however, the remaining performances are sold out.