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—  David Adams as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at Gateway Theatre Dec 12-31. Photo credit: David Cooper.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Book by Joseph Stein | Music by Jerry Bock | Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Based on Sholom Alacheim stories, by special permission of Arnold Perl
Produced on the New York Stage by Harold Prince
Original New York Stage Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Gateway Theatre, Richmond
Dec. 12-31
$48/$30 at www.gatewaytheatre.com or 604-270-1812

Oy, it’s a hard life, being poor and persecuted. Your horse is too sick to pull your cart and your daughter doesn’t want to marry the nice rich man the matchmaker chose for her. Even God won’t listen to your prayers. So what are you going to do already?

In Jewish culture, with its long tradition of suffering and sufferance, you shrug, appreciate the irony, maybe tell a joke or sing a song, and muddle through. Life is precarious. But like a fiddler on a steeply pitched roof, you try to keep your balance and play on.

Fiddler on the Roof is one of the great Broadway musicals. Adapted from Sholem Aleichem’s wry Yiddish folk tales, with Jerry Bock’s Eastern European inflected music and Sheldon Harnick’s subtle lyrics, the show has been a favourite since its 1964 debut. Richmond Gateway’s elaborate production captures much of Fiddler’s joy and sorrow.

Director Chris McGregor puts 30 performers on the stage along with Allen Stiles’ 10-piece orchestra to tell the story of Tevye the milkman’s travails in the fictional Russian village of Anatevka. It’s 1905 and the times they are a-changing. Goodhearted Tevye is pulled every which way trying to hold his family together and do what’s right.

David Adams charms as Tevye, unable to decide whether to play the patriarch as tradition demands or to let his daughters follow their hearts into uncharted cultural territory. “On the other hand” is his favourite expression as he talks to God, looking for answers. Adams has strong presence and a mellow voice on some of the show’s best songs: “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset” with wife Golde (funny Patti Allan). He could use one more gear, though, to give Tevye the larger-than-life quality he needs.

All the principals in this show are fine. Ranae Miller and Alex Pangburn make a cute couple as oldest daughter Tzeitel and goofy Motel the tailor. Gordon Roberts’ Lazar Wolf, the old butcher match-made for Tzeitel, is a benign presence with a good voice. Barbara Pollard has a riot with the surprisingly small role of Yenta the matchmaker.

Gaelan Beatty’s passionate revolutionary Perchik and Tevye’s second daughter Hodel (Kat Palmer, a lovely singer) get less stage time than couple number one. Third daughter Chava (Maddy Kriese) and her Russian boyfriend Fyedka (Nilsen Tiefenbach) are even less well developed. But all the daughters shine singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.”

The young ethnic Russians (Daniel Cardoso, Alfonso Banzon, Caleb Di Pomponio, and Tiefenbach) lead the pogrom against the Jewish villagers but also feature in the dynamic dances originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins and reproduced here by Dawn Ewen as part of the stirring choral number “To Life!” and the wedding’s “Bottle Dance.”

The play’s best scene is Tevye’s pretend nightmare in which Lazar Wolf’s dead wife Fruma Sarah (Sharon Crandall) comes back as a zombie telling Tevye and Golde not to let Tzeitel marry Lazar. Director McGregor brings all his design elements into play here: Drew Facey’s set, Carmen Alatorre’s costumes, Alan Brodie’s lighting, Chris Hind’s sound, plus song and dance and frantic stage action. The surreality and sense of chaos are ingredients that might usefully have seasoned other scenes.

There’s a serious imbalance in the script, with most of the best songs contained in the first act and a slow second act leading to a downbeat finale. Still, as the Jews are exiled from their homes, the characters should feel a real threat to their lives, a sense of urgency that should drive this production towards its paradoxically optimistic end. As the song says, “So if our good fortune never comes/Here’s to whatever comes ...”

Jerry Wasserman