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“And how do we keep our balance?” asks Jonathan Hadary’s welcoming-yet-stoic Tevye the Milkman at the top of the beloved half-century-old musical Fiddler on the Roof. The answer, in Molly Smith’s square and satisfying production for Arena Stage, is “with the aid of a conspicuous safety harness.” The fiddler, his legs dangling from a fan-like structure of wooden planks suspended from the ceiling, is all strapped in before the audience is, though most seemed not to notice him until he began to play. Tevye: Turn Off the Dark, anyone? Base Jumper on the Roof?
As far of shocks-of-the-new go, that harness is it. It is right and good that our fiddler, Alex Alferov, should be protected against potential injury. That thick black rope sticking out from under his collar might as well be the show’s logo: It’s reasonable and sensible. Conventional. Orthodox. Risk-averse, give or take one vigorous bottle dance, wherein a quartet of revelers at a wedding pull themselves across the stage on their knees (ow) while balancing bottles of wine on their heads. (Parker Esse reworked Jerome Robbins’ original choreography for the Fichandler Stage’s in-the-round configuration.)
What, I should complain? This by-all-lights Model A, just-the-facts-Ma’am Fiddler was my first. I dutifully watched a handful of the major numbers from Norman Jewison’s three-hour movie version from 1971. This exercise served to verify that Arena’s production is not a radical departure in style, tone, design, or casting from that, and also that its company is uniformly comelier and handsomer than that of the movie, which made me yearn for the vanished era when a big-budget studio musical could be peopled with talented, regular-looking folks. That’s not to suggest that anybody in the stage production’s attractive, 28-member company is overmatched by their role. They’re all strong enough that they make it look easy. But the show is so crowded that only Hadary, who sings and speaks more than anyone by a substantial margin, and who frequently airs his grievances directly to God, really stands out. His portrait of a good, simple man trying to do right by his wife and his five daughters and his neighbors is warm and persuasive.
Conservatism vs. modernity—specifically, the shocking practice of young folk choosing for themselves whom they shall marry, rather than relying on a matchmaker who sensibly pairs the homely boy with the girl with crummy eyesight, for example—is the matter Tevye chews over throughout the show and the theme of this venerable warhorse. A smattering of dressed-up children punctuated the sea of gray heads on the Saturday evening show I attended. I wondered if they were the only others in the house having a relatively expectation-free aesthetic experience. Most of the audience seemed to greet each number as though it were an old friend.
To a musicals-agnostic Gentile like me, it was easy to see why this show struck a chord, arriving the same year the Beatles made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Civil Rights Act was passed. In an America on the cusp of profound sociopolitical change, here was a story of poor, rural Jews in a Russia on the cusp of profound (albeit darker) sociopolitical change, struggling to eke out a modest sum of happiness and preserve their traditions (to quote the title of its opening number) in the face of pogroms, poverty, and revolution. Anyone who ever felt overwhelmed by the job of protecting their kids from want or pain, or conversely, by pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations, could resonate on its wavelength. Add at least three songs that permeated the culture deeply enough that I knew them without having seen the show (though I didn’t know that “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” were all front-loaded in the first act), and there’s a recipe for something that could play for decades, and has.
Overfamiliarity can be a killer, but it’s tough to imagine the Fiddler fan who could be disappointed in this rich and reverent presentation. For me, it was a happy introduction; for many more, it’ll be a joyous reunion.
1101 Sixth St. SW. $50-$119. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org