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Quintessentially Human 

Nuanced characters and strength of story make ATC’s Fiddler an antidote to the year’s darkest days.

click to enlarge Eric Polani Jensen in Arizona Theatre Company’s Fiddler on the Roof.

Eric Polani Jensen in Arizona Theatre Company’s Fiddler on the Roof.

As the sun takes its yearly vacation from providing lengthy days, we search for ways to lighten things up. Many religious institutions supply attempts to mitigate the darkness with lessons of light and hope. If those don't fit into your worldview, but you still feel the need for activities to brighten the darker days, you might want to take advantage of Arizona Theatre Company's very well-done vintage musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

Fiddler is a big, old-fashioned musical, with a big story, a big cast and a big orchestra that adds up to big entertainment. For a theater that just months ago was bordering on the cancellation of its golden anniversary season, this is an act of chutzpah, and perhaps a celebration that the institution is breathing new life.

ATC gives us a soaring production that tells a complicated and sometimes heartbreaking story of the families, the community and, of course, the traditions of the Jewish shtetl of Anatevka, a fictional town based on the dozens of non-fictional towns like it that existed in the Pale of Settlement, a large concentration of usually Orthodox Jewish communities under the harsh rule of the Russian Empire in the early 20th century.

That may not sound very much like a suitable subject for musical theater, and it did have its doubters when it landed on Broadway in 1964. But in the hands of Jerry Bock (music,) Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book), and with Hal Prince as producer and Jerome Robbins as director/choreographer, it proved to be powerfully suitable. Today, considering the polarization exhibited in the U.S. highlighted by the recent presidential election, a story of a group deemed unacceptable because of their religion seems quite timely.

This is an undercurrent to the proceedings in Fiddler, although it grows in import as the story advances. The real appeal is that it is a quintessentially human story of families struggling to make their way in an often hostile world.

Leading us through the story of his family and community is one of the theater's great characters. Tevye is a good man, a hard-working but poor man and a man with five daughters all needing, at some point, to have husbands found for them. Perhaps this is his biggest burden. Or perhaps it underscores the larger burden of his life: the tsunami of change that is washing over his world.

The show would be quite dismal if it didn't give us a big, boisterous, good-hearted and utterly likeable Tevye. ATC's Eric Polani Jensen is all of that. He welcomes us into his community and confides in us with an endearing vulnerability.

Jensen gives us a full-featured Tevye, a man attached, for better or worse, to his life, his wife and daughters and to his god. He's a man on speaking terms with the Almighty, although his conversations are mostly one-sided. He's not above exercising a bit of mischievous tomfoolery if it suits his wants—particularly when it comes to his wife, whom he's just a wee bit afraid of. He holds fast to his faith and its practice, because without it, nothing would make sense. Still, he can be overwhelmed when even that faith fails to help him make sense of his changing world.

We pretty much instantly fall in love with Jensen's charming, big-hearted Tevye. His forceful baritone voice relates not only enthusiasm and liveliness when things are well, but tenderness and hurt when things are not. Jensen's performance is genuinely warm and welcoming.

The rest of the cast is professional through and through, possessing abilities to become credible characters while offering great vocal strength as well. Anne Allgood as Golde, Tevye's wife, shows great vocal power in a deeply rooted and nuanced character. Jennifer Wingerter as Tzeitel, Taylor Pearlstein as Hodel and Krista Curry as Chava are very strong as Tevye's daughters. Kenny Metzger as Motel, Kevin Milnes as Fyedka and Patrick Shelton as Perchik also give fine performances. Indeed, the entire cast is strong.

David Ira Goldstein, directs and along with Michael Koerner as musical director and choreographer Kathryn Van Meter they constitute a team that obviously knows how to mount a musical. Many of the songs are well-known, but we find ourselves enjoying the freshness and energy with which these directors, the cast and musicians deliver them. The big opening production number, "Tradition," primes us for feeling a real connection to these characters, and other big numbers like "To Life" and a particularly fine staging of "Tevye's Dream" remind us of the sheer fun and power of musical theater.

The design elements are also fine, and sound designer Abe Jacob has done very well with a show that offers numerous challenges in this department. Scenic designer William Forrester has created a set suggesting numerous places that changes fairly smoothly from one to another. One interesting aspect of his design is several backdrop panels painted in the style of Marc Chagall. The original set design by Boris Aronson also used this motif, although not necessarily the same images. Chagall grew up in such a Russian shtetl as is depicted in the show, and it's said that his painting, The Fiddler, was the inspiration for the show. This is widely disputed, however. But the design is certainly a type of homage to Chagall, who was long known as a "Jewish artist."

While giving us full-bodied entertainment, ATC's Fiddler offers a story that also demonstrates how our institutions help define and support us and how they can also cause us great grief when they are inflexible and are challenged by the institutions of others. The show is a delightful antidote to the year's darkest days.

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