The Human Race Theatre Company’s refreshingly intimate take on Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s timeless 1964 musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is an enormously pleasant experience inside its cozy Loft Theatre.
Director Kevin Moore deftly and breezily swaps the sweeping heft typically associated with the material for a smaller, character-conscious approach ripe with immediacy and emotional resonance. His communal, campfire-esque concept, carried out by an excellently cohesive cast of 25 including four musicians who double in smaller roles, unquestionably allows the audience to feel as if they’re right in the heart of the tiny village of Anatevka circa 1905. In fact, when one resident wistfully sung about his quaint surroundings while seated in the aisle next to me, I nearly joined in. After all, by that point, this faith-based community grounded in tradition yet rocked by unexpected transition became so relatable that genuine concern for their future well-being was inescapable. But that’s what makes “Fiddler” so special and practically bulletproof as one of the best musicals ever created. You absolutely care about the characters, specifically as stakes are raised in the darker Act 2 marvelously contrasting the sunny prologue bursting with promise, purpose and possibility.
Drew Pulver is a wonderfully earthy, credibly conflicted everyman in the plum role of poor milkman Tevye, the amiable father of five daughters and the popular glue that holds Anatevka (and this musical) together. As Tevye copes with a whirlwind of change and treasures his chit-chats with God, Pulver’s easygoing, mildly contemporary persona and outstanding vocals (“If I Were a Rich Man” doesn’t disappoint) propel his multifaceted characterization. Still, the volatile anger he displays when Tevye dismisses his daughter Chava for wanting to marry outside the faith is a significant revelation. Chills arise as Tevye is suddenly caught in an utterly disgusted, nearly abusive frame of mind unlike any production of “Fiddler” I have seen, including Canada’s Stratford Festival three months ago. The dynamic Rachel Coloff, who appeared in David Leveaux’s mammoth 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” shines with great sternness and sharp timing as Tevye’s headstrong wife Golde. Coloff is particularly appealing in the loving, temperamental rapport she establishes with Pulver beautifully highlighted in their poignant rendition of “Do You Love Me?”
Christine Zavakos (Tzeitel), Charity Farrell (Hodel), Ashley Campana (Chava), Abby E. Cates (Shprintze) and Hannah Sayer and Jordan Vandersluis (sharing the role of Bielke) are delightful as Tevye and Golde’s children. The sweet, gentle Zavakos, the radiant, vocally stunning Farrell and the intriguing, introverted Campana enjoyably join forces early in the tale for a fun, graceful “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” that typifies their close-knit sisterhood. This winning trio also has engaging partners in Drew Helton, Josh Kenney and Adam Brown, respectively. Helton, a recent Wright State University graduate possessing geeky charm and finding delicious nuances in the script as timid tailor Motel, notably delivers a bubbly, lyric-fueled “Miracle of Miracles” simultaneously warming the heart of Zavakos and the audience. Kenney, a real find as outspoken student Perchik, is fittingly intellectual and fiery while perfectly matched with Farrell. As Fyedka, Brown’s charisma and skillful dancing is a joy.
Colorfully authentic, fully realized performances are also given by Caitlin Larsen (Yente/Grandma Tzeitel), Saul Caplan (Lazar Wolf), K.L. Storer (Rabbi), Matty Rickard (Mendel), Ryan Heinrich (Mordcha), Eric Byrd (Vanya), Joshua Silver Hughes (Yussel), Adam Lendermon (Sasha), Jeff Sams (Constable), and Linda June Snyder (Shaindel). Larsen’s comedic expertise, Caplan’s joviality, Sams’ cool, imposing demeanor, and Rickard, Byrd, Hughes and Lendermon’s splendid execution of the iconic “Bottle Dance” (one of many crisp, spirited routines marvelously reproduced by Chris Crowthers from Jerome Robbins’ original choreography) are noteworthy.
The production’s superb ambience is heightened by Dick Block’s strikingly detailed set evoking religion, John Rensel’s proficient lighting expertly marking shifts in tone, Tony Ray Hicks’ attractive costumes (originally designed for a 2009 “Fiddler” national tour starring Topol), Nathan D. Dean’s first-rate sound design (“Tevye’s Dream,” featuring Campana as the eerie Fruma-Sarah, is a spooky delight), and music director/guitarist Jay Brunner’s (Nachum) terrific klezmer band (particularly giving Farrell’s gorgeous rendition of “Far From the Home I Love” a tender acoustic flair) featuring Brent Eresman (Seth/clarinet), Joel Greenberg (Zev/mandolin), and brilliant, expressive violinist George Abud (Fiddler). Janet Yates Vogt provides vocal music direction.
It’s no surprise “Fiddler” has endured for generations. The Human Race keeps the musical’s tuneful, meaningful legacy alive with stripped down potency accenting the fact that it’s never too late to reexamine a classic.
“Fiddler on the Roof” continues through Nov. 30 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Nov. 8-9, Nov. 13-16, Nov. 20-23, Nov. 27, 29-30 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 10, 17, 24 and 30 at 2 p.m.; and Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. The Nov. 12 and 19 performances are sold out. Act One: 95 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $21-$45. Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.There will also be a special Sing-a-Long “Fiddler” concert Dec. 1 at 2 p.m. Song lyrics will be provided. All tickets are $18.
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