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Review: 'Fiddler on the Roof' at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

December 9, 2008 |  3:15 pm

FiddlerYou know you’re in good hands when a show lasts three hours -– and you don’t want it to end.

Granted, with “Fiddler on the Roof,” you’re starting off with a classic in the first place.  First produced on Broadway in 1964, “Fiddler,” which features Jerry Bock’s music, Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and Joseph Stein’s book, based on the beloved stories of Sholem Aleichem, has been a perennial offering at dinner theaters and community playhouses for almost 50 years now.  However, Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' present production at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center is a chance to experience this timeless musical in peak form.

Director Jon Engstrom reaches that peak by honoring Jerome Robbins’ original staging, including a superlative re-creation of Robbins’ choreography.  Yet Engstrom does not merely crack open the cornerstone and blow the mold off the artifacts inside.  His vibrant staging stands on its own, without obvious revisionism or unnecessary flourishes.  As for his exceptional performers, they flesh out their familiar archetypes with twinkling humanity and pathos.

That twinkle is essential to the central role of Teyve, played here by the excellent Thomas Fiscella.  Typically, Tevye, the part originated by Zero Mostel, is played by established “names” of a certain vintage.  The agile, comparatively youthful Fiscella may not rate top billing on a Broadway marquee, not yet, but it’s nice to see a Tevye who mingles wry comic timing with sheer physical dynamism.  We can well believe that Fiscella’s taut, striving Tevye is a lowly milkman struggling for subsistence in the tiny Russian shtetl of Anatevka.

Look beyond Tevye’s twinkle, and you’ll see the strain of generational uncertainty.  It’s 1905, when revolution looms, but in this backwater, talk of pogroms and atrocities seem a distant murmur.  Of course, harsh reality intrudes all too soon. (Keep a few handkerchiefs tucked away -- you’re going to need them.)

As Golde, Tevye’s quarrelsome wife, Victoria Strong is also effectively spare.  Strong underplays Golde, so much so that Golde’s essential shrewishness is somewhat muted.  That’s not a bad thing, either. Strong particularizes the maternal anxiety that motivates Golde’s exasperation, and her character is all the richer for that.

As Lazar Wolf, the widowed butcher who tries to wed Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel (winning Carly Nykanen), Stephen Reynolds gives a towering turn, abrim with fond hope and foolish desire.  Also outstanding is Michaelia Leigh as Hodel, Tevye’s second daughter, who faces a painful choice and a wrenching parting.

Christa Armendariz’s costumes, Darrell J. Clark’s lighting and John Feinstein’s sound contribute to the rich ambience.  Dennis Castellano’s pitch-perfect musical direction, a terrific orchestra and the cast’s uniformly fine voices blend sublimely, particularly in the lovely “Sabbath Prayer,” which will send you fumbling for those handkerchiefs early on. In an era of vicious extremism and intolerance, “Fiddler” reminds us that religious faith can -- and should -- be tempered by forbearance and humor, a lesson particularly appropriate to this season, and these times.

--F. Kathleen Foley

Fiddler on the Roof,” Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach.  8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (plus 2 p.m. Dec. 13 and 20, 7 p.m. Dec. 14 and 21.) $40-$60.  (310) 372-4477. Running time:  3 hours.

Caption: Thomas Fiscella as Tevye and Stephen Reynolds as Lazar Wolf in "Fiddler on the Roof." Credit: Ed Krieger