Part of the fun of Fiddler on the Roofor any popular musical, reallyis re-experiencing the familiar. It's that satisfaction of being an insider, of already knowing what you're in for, but relishing the voyage anyway. In the case of the University of Montana's production of Fiddler (put on by the School of Theatre and Dance and the School of Music) songs like "Matchmaker" and "If I Were a Rich Man" are recalled from the cobwebs of the mind with the prompting of just a few introductory notes from the live orchestra. When the curtain opens, we know the iconic silhouette of a fiddler will be revealed, happily fiddling on the precariously sloping rooftop. We're reminded in the very first act what this metaphor is: "Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck," says the patriarch, Tevye. "It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay here if it's so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!"
And so, Fiddler, a 1964 play about tradition, has become a tradition for audiences. Of course, the challenge of putting on a classic play is to keep it from feeling stale while being true to its original intent. Director Jonathan Kenneth DeBoer hasn't done anything experimental here, which seems like a wise choice. This is straight-up Fiddler, the story of a loving but cantankerous milkman, his wife Golde and their five daughters. It's about Jewish tradition and generational values and it's about prejudice. Specifically, it's about what happens when Tevye's daughters decide to marry the people they love, rather than the men they are formally matched with, and how Tevye and the rest of the old guard deal with changing attitudes.
UM's production has two Tevyes. Stephen Kalm, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, is the main actor. Howard Kingston, who has a long history in Missoula theater, is the understudy. The night I went, Kingston took the stage and knocked it out of the ballpark. He played Tevye as charming, stubborn and thoughtful, as a father who loves his daughters but who has a hard time with breaking marriage traditions. Kingston tends to play his roles with ease and without overdoing them, and that's the case here. His rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man" is particularly funny, but not clownish. He reacts to the events of the story with a nice mix of trepidation, annoyance and, when it comes to his moments of acceptance, good cheer.
When UM's Fiddler is good, it's really good. The best parts are the big number scenes including the one at the inn where the butcher Lazar Wolf, played with jolly brashness by Greg Bortz, requests the hand of Tevye's eldest daughter and the entire bar in a moment of drunken gregariousness sings "To Life." Same goes for the dream scene where Tevye breaks the news to Golde that their daughter will be marrying the tailor, and the whole village appears to sing along. The bed becomes a set of tombstones and Fruma-Sarah, the butcher's first wife, rises into the air with ghostly grandeur. Choreography in this and the wedding scene is impressive as the Russians bend their legs in a line-dance, balancing bottles in their outstretched hands.
Intimate scenes sometimes fall flat. The youths in this productionthe daughters and their prospective husbandsare meant to be the provocateurs, yet these scenes of forbidden and young love don't sizzle. The one exception is Elizabeth Bennett, who plays Chava with honest desperation. In general, though, the couples twirl and clasp hands in standard musical style, but there's very little indication that traditional obstacles are being overcome. In fact, the real radical moments in this production happen mostly with the older characters. Tevye and Golde's "Do You Love Me?" is a moving duet in which Kingston and Clare Edgerton as Golde capture the reawakening of a couple who forgot that they'd once been young and in love.
Fiddler's set, designed by Shy Iverson, is one of the best I've seen in a long time. It's like a painting you'd see at the Dana Gallery (a Robert Schlegel, perhaps)rendered in warm oranges and pinks, made to look almost Picasso-like in its slanted rooftops and doorways. Light designer Mark Dean enhances the romantic yet dilapidated feel as the sun rises and sets. This all captures the mood of a small Russian town and yet the design is quirky as if it's been created for a short animation film.
In the program you can read a director's note from DeBoer, which he wrote before the recent elections had been decided. It says: "We open our production of Fiddler on the Roof at the University of Montana the day after our nation voted to elect either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney to the presidency; the day after my 80-year-old German-Catholic Nana voted whether her grandson might marry in the state of Maryland. The progress made from Tsarist Russia to Sholem Aleichem's Tevye stories to Fiddler on the Roof to today would not be possible without a constant process of dissolution, reflection and rebirth."
In its strongest moments, this production makes that leap, transcending its old-world setting to hint at how tradition and the breaking of tradition is perpetual.
Fiddler on the Roof continues at the Montana Theatre in the PARTV Center Thu., Nov. 15, through Sat., Nov. 17, at 7:30 PM nightly, with a 2 PM matinee Sun., Nov. 17. $20/$16 seniors and students/$10 for those 12 and under. Visit umtheatredance.org.