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After all these decades, most audiences are so used to Topol’s movie version or Zero Mostel’s Broadway cast album of “Fiddler on the Roof” that anybody else doing the role of Tevye, the poor Russian milkman struggling to hold on to his traditions in a fast-changing world, seems strange, perhaps even a bit suspect.
But it takes Bruce Winant, the Broadway veteran who heads this new production kicking off the 41st season for Music Theatre of Wichita, only a few minutes to sweep the audience up in his own genial take on Tevye. He wins them over so completely that even when he flubbed a line opening night, he shrugged his shoulders and looked to the heavens like it was just one more trial in poor Tevye’s struggle to survive, and the audience cheered him on.
Winant, who has done “Fiddler” several times before, including in 2006 on Broadway, has a naturalistic approach. He isn’t portentous or stagey in his paternal pronouncements and delightfully skewed observations. He is more conversational, more real; therefore, crisper and fresher in his delivery without losing any of the emotional impact. Winant is also thinner, making him look more credible as a peasant who actually knows hunger in oppressive Tsarist Russian in 1905.
“Fiddler” is such a beloved Broadway classic that director Mark Madama wisely chose to honor its inspiring traditions rather than tart it up to make it “relevant” for a new generation. Madama, now in his 24th year with Music Theatre, has said the show is so well-written that it didn’t need him to “fix” or “finesse” it, only burnish it. He says he gathered the right people to perform it, then got out of the way. And it worked beautifully.
Playing opposite Winant as Golde, Tevye’s long-suffering wife and partner in scratching out a meager living, is Karen Robu, a Music Theatre veteran known for such riveting and flashy turns as the slithery sea witch Ursula of “Disney’s Little Mermaid.” The mousy Golde is a much lower-key role, but Robu’s magnificent voice shines through the rags and tatters.
Robu and Winant, with his commanding baritone, are vocally well-matched for their duets, whether the hauntingly poignant “Sunrise, Sunset” about children growing up or their sweetly tender “Do You Love Me?” about how they feel about each other 25 years after their arranged marriage.
Winant gets the show up and running with a strong rendition of “Tradition,” which introduces most of the 76-member cast as villagers in tiny Anatevka and how they each fit into the scheme of life. He creates a wonderfully comic moment during his wishful “If I Were a Rich Man” conversation with God and also leads the village men through the joyous and boozy celebration “To Life.”
Broadway veteran Mary Stout, making a return to Music Theatre after 20 years, is a hilarious bundle of quirky self-centered energy as the know-it-all matchmaker, Yente. Longtime Music Theatre favorite Timothy Robu gives a gruffly lovable turn to Lazar Wolf, a prosperous middle-aged butcher who has his eye on Teyve’s oldest daughter.
Matthew Amira as the student revolutionary Perchik and Alexandra Fragoso as Tevye’s quick-witted daughter Hodel are terrific in their “Now I Have Everything” romantic duet. So is Evan Mayer as the poor tailor, Motel, in his “Miracle of Miracles” wooing of Tevye’s daughter, Tzeitel (charming Alex Finke).
Choreographer Mark Esposito faithfully recreates Jerome Robbins’ original dance movements. One breath-taking highlight is the famous bottle dance at the wedding, well performed here with lockstep precision and balance.
Music director Thomas W. Douglas led the full 21-member orchestra through the beautiful, spirited and sometimes melancholy Jerry Bock score and brought us back to the glory days of big Broadway shows with big Broadway sound.