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Review: 'Fiddler on the Roof' at Rubicon Theatre

April 1, 2009 |  3:00 pm

FIDDLER - 1 

Tradition! It's safe to say that the famous refrain from "Fiddler on the Roof" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Tony-winning 1964 musical is now one of theater's most reliable staples -- a chestnut revived so frequently that most productions give the impression that they're just going through the motions.    

Same time, same shtetl. Sometimes, however, tradition can be a good thing. The Rubicon Theatre's current production doesn't rewrite the book in terms of "Fiddler" revivals, but director James O'Neil's lucid and efficient staging gives this theatrical war horse dramatic breadth and a sturdy set of running legs.

Who doesn't know the story by now? Tevye (Jay Brazeau), a dairy farmer toiling away in czarist Russia, lives with his henpecking wife (Eileen Barnett) and his five increasingly rebellious daughters. His impoverished but peaceful existence gradually crumbles under the weight of a changing world -- first, when his daughters decide to marry out of love, and then when war threatens his way of life.

The performances are uniformly engaging and energetic, though seldom exceptional. It's difficult to labor in the shadow of Zero Mostel and Topol, but Brazeau's Tevye manages a few memorable moments, including his rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man" and his drunken scenes at the local tavern.

Even better are the younger ensemble members who bring dewy innocence and good looks to their parts. As the budding Bolshevik who woos one of Tevye's daughters, Robert Adelman Hancock finds the right combination of intellectual earnestness and emotional naivete. Equally effective is Lauren Patten, who makes the most of her limited stage time as the most headstrong of the daughters.

Using a series of scrims, set designer Thomas Giamario conjures a convincing village out of few materials. The walls of the theater have been painted in a style suggesting Marc Chagall, and a thrust stage adds even more square footage to the performance area.

The songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are so well-known by now that any production will have hard time shaking a greatest-hits feeling. Some of the ensemble singing in the Rubicon's revival could use some fine-tuning, but mostly, the musical numbers are executed with conviction and style.

O'Neil's direction keeps things moving at a comfortable gallop. The scenes flow together briskly without ever feeling rushed. Instead of devising new choreography, the producers have wisely opted to reproduce Jerome Robbins' original direction, including the famous bottle dance that tops off an elaborate wedding scene.

What makes Joseph Stein's book eternally relevant is the way it evokes a changing world. Once Tevye sees that he can no longer cling to his old ways, he has little choice but to accept his daughters' choices in marriage. You can't fight time. So long as the world keeps changing, "Fiddler" will always have something meaningful to say.

In fact, the theater world could pick up a thing or two from the good peasants of Anatevka. It’s always nice to see a polished revival, but audiences may end up wishing that producers could be more like Tevye and learn to embrace the new, the different and the unexpected.

--David Ng

"Fiddler on the Roof," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays. Ends April 26. $49-$69. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 3 hours.

Photo: the cast of Rubicon Theatre production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Credit Rod Lathim

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