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Review: BDT Stage's Fiddler on the Roof Is Reason to Celebrate -- L'Chaim!

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Fiddler on the Roof BDT Stage Do we really need another Fiddler on the Roof? Since being amazed and delighted by the movie many years ago, I've attended several stage productions -- high school, professional and, recently, a very good Phamaly version. So when BDT Stage (formerly Boulder's Dinner Theatre) announced that artistic director Michael J. Duran had chosen the show for the holidays and beyond, I was inclined to skip it. But as it turns out, we do need another Fiddler on the Roof -- because this just may be the most successful production I've seen. It does full justice to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's brilliant songs, tells the evocative story with clarity and feeling, and also -- uniquely, in my experience -- sounds the musical's deeper, darker chords. See also: Boulder's Dinner Theatre -- Best Actor in a Musical 2014

The action is set in a rural Russian Jewish community whose members can be quarrelsome and petty or generous and helpful, unified and sustained by timeless bonds of ritual and tradition. At the center of the community is Tevye, a poor milkman struggling to survive and with five daughters to worry about. His worries come to a head when the three eldest daughters, each in turn, defy his patriarchal authority: Instead of submitting to the manipulations of matchmaker Yente, Tzeitel chooses the tailor Motel, and only then asks her father's permission; Hodel falls in love with radical Marxist Perchik and prepares to follow him wherever his revolutionary work leads; and, worst of all, Chava marries outside the faith, having fallen in love with a Russian soldier.

Fiddler is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, sometimes called "the Jewish Mark Twain" for his folksy style, and the character of Tevye is key. He complains, but without much conviction that things can change, fantasizes about being wealthy, and remonstrates with his God, whom he thinks of as an intimate. I've seen Wayne Kennedy perform often; I know his capacity for shoulder-shrugging and ironic humor, his talent for unsentimental pathos. But I've never seen him as he is here playing Tevye, larger than life, carrying the entire lively production on his shoulders. A lot of Tevyes come across like Jewish Santa Clauses; Kennedy's is a different animal entirely. He gives the comedy its due, but he lets us see the profound sadness beneath the jovial exterior -- and something more. This man is loving to his children, generous to the stranger -- as Jews are historically required to be -- and jokey and argumentative with God, but there are deep currents of rage coursing through his veins. He knows the fragility of his community's existence; he embodies the excruciating dilemma of being poised between old and new, between the comfortable but constricted country world he has always known and unknown America, where the occasional aunt or uncle is already making a life -- but what kind of life? The winds of history and time call forth huge gusts of feeling and sometimes rage from Kennedy's Tevye as he contemplates the loss of everything he's cherished, including his little bird, his daughter Chava.

The rest of the cast is strong, too. There's Shelly Cox-Robie as Golde, hardened by life and a husband who sometimes seems barely aware she's there, but still capable of tenderness. In previous performances, I've seen the three daughters as just a group of pretty dark-haired girls, but here, with Jessica Hindsley as Tzeitel, Rebekah Ortiz as Hodel and Sarah Grover playing Chava, they are charming and specific. The same is true of their suitors: Brett Ambler, Burke Walton and, in particular, Matt LaFontaine, playing Motel, Perchik and Fyedka, respectively. Scott Beyette's performance as Lazar Wolfe is a standout, and so is Barb Reeves's portrayal of Yente. The songs -- "If I Were a Rich Man," "Sabbath Prayer," "To Life," "Anatevka" -- are delivered with an energy that makes them new, and Tevye's dream sequence, helped by Amanda Earls's crazed singing as Fruma-Sarah, is particularly well staged.

As a Jew, I have sometimes left Fiddler feeling insulted by the cutesiness with which Jewishness and Jewish customs were portrayed. But BDT enlisted the advice of a local rabbi for this production, and the accents and mannerisms, as well as Linda Morken's fine costumes, all convey a sense of respect and authenticity. And the menace humming beneath the action reminds us of the real dangers of the pogroms.

The theater's new name is intended to welcome in the new while honoring what's been done, according to Duran. How fitting, then, that Fiddler should be the inaugural production.

Fiddler on the Roof, presented by BDT Stage through February 28, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder. For ticket information, call 303-449-6000 or go to bouldersdinnertheatre.com.

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