'Fiddler' revival offers fresh, satisfying take on a classic

“Fiddler on the Roof” opens with one of the most effective “set-the-scene” numbers in all musical theater, “Tradition” – followed in short order by “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.”

What a line-up: each song character-driven, each clever, each beautifully composed to suit dancers as well as vocalists. And that’s just for starters. 

Compare that to the many fill-in-the-blank songs of many recent, movie-inspired shows – melodically derivative, lyrically insipid, apparently performed just to mark time until the next familiar number. But the wonderfully crafted “Fiddler,” which won the Tony for Best Musical when it debuted in 1964, is filler-free. 

And director Bartlett Sher’s fresh, imaginative revival, now playing at the Fox Theatre, digs into the meaty material with an appetite as hearty as a poor student brings to a generous family’s table on a Friday night.

Based on the Yiddish stories of Sholom Aleichem, “Fiddler” comes with real “yiches” (a distinguished pedigree): book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, original direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Many productions aim simply to be faithful to those artists (a hard enough task!) But this production looks, feels and maybe fundamentally is different, all the while paying homage to a show we’ve cherished for years.

Original choreography by Hofesh Shechter is a little looser in the shoulders and a little less formal than we may recall, but Robbins’ iconic bottle dance remains a breathtaking highlight of the wedding scene (which includes the most famous “Fiddler” song, “Sunrise, Sunset.”)

And at the end, as the exiled Jews of Anatevka leave their village, they form a circle to bid each other a solemn, yearning farewell. It wouldn’t be “Fiddler” without those Robbins’ signatures. 

Similarly, the masked figures who appear in “Tevye’s Dream” have a fresh, but still distorted, look, with the spectral Fruma-Sarah roughly the height of a redwood tree. 

Set designer Michael Yeargan dispenses with the Chagall motifs to create a little town of small wooden buildings that float down from the ceiling and disappear again. It’s still surrealistic, just in a different way. Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder give the shtetl the airy, sketched-out look of a memory – except for the scene when the Russian constable tells them the Jew they must leave their homes. That takes place in Tevye’s dairy barn, a tall enclosure made of boards. Ominously, it evokes the inside of a cattle car.

As Tevye, the cheerful and impoverished milkman Israeli who chats with God and his neighbors in the same frank tones, Israeli theater artist Yehezkel Lazarov heads a large, capable cast, full of strong singers and lyrical dancers. They include Mel Weyn, Ruthy Froch (who delivers “Far from the Home I Love” in lush, tender tones) and Natalie Powers as Tevye’s eldest daughters; Jesse Weil, Ryne Nardecchia and Jack O’Brien as their suitors; Carol Beaugard as Yente the matchmaker and Jonathan von Mering as the lonely butcher Lazar Wolf. 

Maite Uzal plays Tevye’s wife, Golde, without a drop of sentimentality: She practically shoves him away at the end of their duet, “Do You Love Me?” But when they suffer a tragedy together, they embrace, as Golde crouches on the ground and Tevye leans over to hold her tightly. It’s a wordless statement of their mutual love.

As our guide to Anatevka in 1905, Lazarov cuts a commanding figure, impressive in his modesty and  paternal in his demeanor. But this Tevye comes with a twist: He wears a red windbreaker and modern eyeglasses at the opening of each act and at the end of the play.

Why? It’s open to interpretation, of course. But here’s one possibility: It’s a way to connect the audience to Tevye, whose traditions, embodied in the Fiddler (Paul Morland), will evolve and continue to sustain people around the world. It turns Tevye into one of us.