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Occasionally, the first time's the charm.
Goodspeed Musicals is producing "Fiddler on the Roof," which it never has before. This Rob Ruggiero-directed version is all that you'd hope it would be. It's deeply moving - I dare you not to well up as the villagers of Anatevka are driven from their homes - and it's emotional - "Sunrise, Sunset" captures the passage of time and life with melancholy grandeur.
This "Fiddler" mines the show's humor deftly, too. The key there is Adam Heller, who stars as Tevye. He may be physically smaller than the conventional, Zero-Mostel-esque Tevye, but his presence and performance make a huge impression. Heller has acted at the Opera House before, but this is his crowning Goodspeed achievement. Tevye is the kind of complex role actors dream of, thanks to Joseph Stein's book, taken from Sholom Aleichem's short story. Tevye gets to utter some of the wisest wisecracks in theater, and Heller delivers each with elan.
He conveys the warmth, too, that Tevye feels for his family, and his worry that tradition - and his grown daughters - are slipping away.
I remain a huge Rob Ruggiero fan, and he has once again proven himself a wizard at directing musicals that have depth, with a current running under the musical vitality and comic flair. "Fiddler" is a worthy successor to his other Goodspeed triumphs, including "Show Boat" and "The Most Happy Fella."
It helps, of course, that the material Heller and Ruggiero have been given is blue-chip. "Fiddler's" story is rich, focusing on a milkman and his family in 1905 Russia who are dealing with cultural changes and with the looming threat of the Tsarist government. It touches on issues of customs disappearing and women determining their own destiny, of religious persecution and poor versus rich.
And the music? Wow. The opening run of songs is a musical-theater lover's dream - "Tradition," followed by "Matchmaker," then "If I Were a Rich Man." Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick created a score that courts perfection. The cast's voices tap the emotion in every number, bringing subtlety or muscularity where required. (One misstep: "If I Were a Rich Man" feels oddly lackadaisical in its staging and performance.)
When it comes to the characters, Tevye rules "Fiddler," and the others make less of an impact in part because they are simply less central. Even so, Lori Wilner provides a fine foil for Heller as wife Golde. The daughters of marrying age - Barrie Krienik as Tzeitel, Elizabeth DeRosa as Hodel, and Jen Brissman as Chava - do solid work, as their characters move from dreaming of a "Matchmaker"-made marriage to choosing their own husbands. Matchmaker Yente is only second to Tevye when it comes to amusing one-liners, and Cheryl Stern spins them expertly. Kudos, too, to her turn as the ghostly Grandma Tzeitel, and Joy Hermalyn as the haunting Fruma-Sarah in the droll "Dream" sequence.
The ensemble provides potent support in the production numbers. The choreography by Goodspeed fave Parker Esse, inspired by Jerome Robbins' original work, makes a vibrant impression; the opening "Tradition" fires the evening up with a burst of joy, as all the characters convene onstage for a celebratory whirl. The bottle dance in "To Life" thrills as an ode to balance, posture and athleticism; good on the performers who dance it with such control and artistry.
If the production numbers pop, the set and costumes recede, thanks to their earth tones and rustic feel. Michael Schweikardt's set suggests various changes in scene with small but evocative pieces. Toward the back of the stage, thin white birches with leafless branches speak of a stark environment. Alejo Vietti's costumes reflect the simplicity of the Anatevka life.
This year happens to be "Fiddler's" 50th anniversary. A new production is set to hit Broadway in the fall of 2015, but, really, it won't be easy to top Goodspeed's version.
What: "Fiddler on the Roof"
Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam
When: Through Sept. 12; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also, 2 p.m. on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. on select Sundays
Tickets: Start at $27, all prices subject to change based on availability
Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org