It’s one of the wonders of storytelling that a simple story about poor people can be so complex and rich.
That is the case with “Fiddler on the Roof,” and this simple tale of a milkman in a small village in Tsarist Russia has never been told as well as it is in the Broadway touring production that opened Tuesday at the Tulsa PAC.
It doesn’t matter how many times you may have seen this musical, which has been a part of the culture since its original debut in 1964 — this version has a freshness, an urgency, that makes it almost seem new.
Bartlett Sher’s direction has stripped away the sentimentality, that nostalgic, comforting, almost cartoonish patina that is often applied to this musical, which writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick adapted from the stories of Sholem Aleichem.
And the pace at which the action is set gives the show an underlying, almost febrile energy. Even at its most comic and joyful, there is to every scene the sense of time moving faster than it should, of the characters’ fate inexorably approaching.
It’s this urgency that lifts every other element of the show — the comedy, the music, the dancing (like Sher’s direction, choreographer Hofesh Shechter’s work here is “Inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins,” but Shechter’s dances have their own unique zest).
The story you know: Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov) toils at his trade in the village of Anatevka, a predominantly Jewish settlement, where he lives with his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal), and their five daughters.
Three of these daughters — Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Chava (Natalie Powers) — are of marriageable age, although their prospects for wedded bliss are somewhat slim. The best that the local matchmaker Yente (Carol Beaugard) can do for the eldest daughter, Tzeitel, is the elderly butcher Lazar Wolf (Jonathan von Mering).
The daughters, however, have minds of their own when it comes to romance and marriage. Tzeitel has sewn up the affections of the local tailor Motel (Jesse Weil), while Hodel has become captivated by the budding revolutionary Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia). And the bookish Chava has taken the boldest step of all, falling in love with the very Russian — and very gentile — Fyedka (Joshua Logan Alexander).
These seemingly little rebellions against all the religious and social traditions by which Tevye and his neighbors have lived, that have governed people’s behavior and attitude for centuries, are in fact evidence of the seismic changes that are heading for this insular enclave, culminating in a stark moment has the inhabitants of Anatevka join in a never-ending circle of displaced people, forever searching for some new, different place to call home.
Lazarov is a superb Tevye. He is a natural comedian, though he wisely underplays lines and scenes that could easily become vaudevillian. If anything, it makes the few moments when he does milk a particular joke even funnier. And his interactions with Uzal as Golde are among the highlights of the show, as these two performers strike all sorts of sparks with their acerbic banter and the rare yet poignant moments of tenderness (“Sunrise, Sunset,” “Do You Love Me?”).
Uzal gives her Golde a flintiness that heightens that sense of urgency permeating this production. The way she is constantly in motion, the way her exasperation with her husband erupts from time to time, the snap in her voice as she tells her daughters of the chores they need to do — Uzal’s portrayal gives one the feeling that Golde is more aware of the family’s fate than she lets on.
The dancing is full of energy and risk, especially in the ensemble numbers “To Life” and “The Wedding,” which features the best iteration of the iconic “Bottle Dance” I’ve seen.
Life for Tevye — for any of us — may be as precarious as a fiddler on the roof, but if there is one thing to be sure of, it’s that this production of “Fiddler on the Roof” is not to be missed.
“Fiddler on the Roof” continues with performances through Sunday, June 23, at the Tulsa PAC, 101 E. Third St. For ticket information: 918-596-7111, tulsapac.com.