Continuing a 50-year tradition, Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre's production of "Fiddler on the Roof" brought the audience to thunderous applause on opening night last Friday at the Firehouse Arts Center.
The most important thing for any "Fiddler" is a charming Tevye, and Dan Kapler proves magnetic as he rejoices in life and his family while grappling with changing social mores in the impoverished village of Anatevka in 1905 Czarist Russia. He peers up to the heavens as he addresses God, combining reverence with frankness, and his delivery never failed to draw a laugh: "It's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either."
The prologue, "Tradition," acquaints us with everyone -- Tevye, the larger-than-life milkman/Jewish philosopher, his five daughters, the village of Anatevka and the Russians who rule the land. We also are introduced to the fundamentals of Judaism.
As the cast performed its first large dance number in "Tradition," accompanied by the excellent eight-member orchestra, it was clear that the small stage would not be a limitation. From the opening signature violin solo by Sherry Lewis, the music was flawless.
As the show progresses, so does the maturity of the oldest three daughters, Tzeitel (Melissa Reinertson), Hodel (Rachel Robinson) and Chava (Ashley Rose Mufich). In the beginning they sing for Yenta, the Matchmaker (Ali Lane), to make them a match -- until they realize they "could get stuck for good."
Actually, Tzeitel has already found her match in Motel (Burton Thomas), the poor tailor. Then when Tevye brings home rebellious student Perchik (Scott Reardon), things get even more interesting, due to his inventive teachings on what the Bible says about employers and the attraction that develops between him and Hodel.
The simple sets (Patrick Brandon) are effective and versatile as the action moves along. During the "Sabbath Prayer" scene, Tevye's family on stage was enhanced by cast members lining the sides of the theater holding candles and singing, for a richness of sound that evoked the whole village, indeed the whole world, celebrating the Sabbath.
"Sunrise, Sunset" was another emotional experience, as Tzeitel and Motel stand under the wedding canopy. The party that follows is humorous as the husbands demand their wives dance with them -- breaking another longstanding tradition. Tevye rethinks traditions as he defends them, coping with his daughters choosing their own husbands and the increasing persecution by the czar, including a jarring incident that abruptly ends the wedding festivities.
"Do You Love Me?" lets us see the softer side of Teyve's wife Golde (Annmarie Martin), as she is normally a sharp-tongued character, although she is kind and patient with Yenta, a non-stop talker as well as a matchmaker.
Although the tale is heart-wrenching -- villagers being persecuted, then driven from their homes -- the first half of the musical contains a lot of humor. The creative dream sequence was masterful and had audience members laughing out loud, especially at the exaggerated ghost of Fruma-Sarah (Megan McGrath). The play is really very funny -- until it is very sad.
Director/choreographer Christina Lazo and music director Pat Parr deliver an important part of "Fiddler," the sense of community in Anatevka. And the Fiddler herself is omnipresent as Tevye and the others struggle to keep their balance. The Jews' departure from Anatevka in the final scene was well choreographed for its poignancy, adding depth to the tale.
With such rousing dance numbers and clever lyrics as well as beautiful songs, it is no wonder the musical has drawn record audiences during the last 50 years. This production, too, is selling out quickly. As in all its productions, Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre uses the small theater to its advantage, giving the performance an immediacy for the audience too.
What: "Fiddler on the Roof"
Who: Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.; Through May 3
Where: Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Ave.
Tickets: $17-$38; purchase at www.firehousearts.org; call 931-4848; or go to the box office