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Theater Review: “Fiddler on the Roof” at Arena Stage

This production of the classic musical is in desperate need of a stronger lead.

Jonathan Hadary as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Photograph by Margot Schulman.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, the musical based on the stories of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. It recreates life in a small village “beyond the pale,” where Jews eke out a meager living amid the threat of pogroms at the whim of the Russian czar.

At the center of this is the milkman Tevye, a man “blessed” with five daughters in need of dowries, a demanding if understanding wife, a horse that limps so much Tevye has to pull his own milk wagon, and a faith that sustains him through daily tribulations that would destroy a weaker man.

Fiddler might have been dismissed as too schmaltzy, too sentimental were it not for the brilliant score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the witty book by Joseph Stein, and the dynamic choreography by Jerome Robbins. Its song like “Sunrise, Sunset” became instant classics, and its focus on the quandary between maintaining tradition and bending to a new generation resonated with audiences around the world—for instance Japan, where it was a huge hit. The show has the added advantage that it was dated when it debuted. It remains a daguerreotype of a time and place that exist in distant memory and folklore.

Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith has embraced the spirit of musical with gusto—the stage rings with joyful melodies and the stomps of energetic dancers. And there are some stunning performances: Ann Arvia is pitch-perfect as Tevye’s wife, Golde; as are the actresses playing their daughters Tzeitel (Dorea Schmidt), Hodel (Hannah Corneau), and Chava (Maria Rizzo).

But those strong points and the perfect setting cannot mask the missing jewel at is center: Jonathan Hadary is a Broadway veteran and a talented performer, but he lacks the dramatic heft to embody Tevye. The character demands a larger stage presence, a booming voice, a gallon-jugful of audacity. Hadary’s milkman is fat-free.

Another unfortunate point: Some of the other players speak in accents that bear no resemblance to Russian Jewry. They are immigrants from some country (one actor sounded vaguely Irish), but not one Sholem Aleichem ever visited.

That said, the sheer exuberance of Fiddler on the Roof is bound to delight audiences—particularly those who have never tasted the full-fat variety of Tevye.

Fiddler on the Roof is at Arena Stage through January 4. Running time is about two hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($50 to $99) are available online. UPDATE, 12/10: The Arena Stage run has been extended through January 11.