The Muny is closing its 90th season with Fiddler on the Roof. At the risk of putting the cart before the horse here, let's state at the outset that not only is Fiddler one of the most beloved shows ever, but it also is an evening of cunning and consummate craft. To revisit this musical folk tale about the futile struggle of a poor dairyman to preserve traditions in changing times is to return, not only to rural Russia in 1905, but to an era in the early 1960s when the ambitions of American musical theater were both serious and satisfying.
Jerome Robbins, the show's original director-choreographer, is revered as a genius. But his approach to theater seems more down-to-earth than that. Whenever Robbins directed a musical, he would ask the authors — here, he asked composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and author Joseph Stein — a direct question: What is their story about? After it was determined that Fiddler concerns the dissolution of a way of life, the next step was obvious: Compose an opening song that sets up that premise. Thus "Tradition" was written. In the evening's artful first minute, our protagonist Tevye informs the viewer that "because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do." Everything that occurs in the ensuing two hours and forty minutes will play off that single line. Genius? In hindsight, it sounds like common sense. Would that more directors had it.
The brutal August heat took a toll on opening night. There wasn't a person in the audience who didn't empathize with the actors onstage. Trojans all, to have performed under such trying conditions. Yet despite the stultifying weather, the 90-minute Act One veritably flew by, primarily because Fiddler's spine is so solid. You don't hear one-sided conversations between man and God in High School Musical.
Far and away the most fascinating thing about this week's staging is the opportunity to watch a performance-in-progress by Lewis J. Stadlen. A veteran actor of consummate talent, Stadlen discovered the Muny last summer. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Whatever, he made for an incorrigibly comic Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! This summer in The Producers, he repeated his inspired virtuoso turn as Max Bialystock (a role he already had played hundreds of times on tour and on Broadway). Now he is creating his first-ever Tevye, and a daunting challenge it is.
In the 44 years since Fiddler's debut, this impoverished dreamer has become identified with large men: Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Topol. And of course the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, was hefty. But Mostel's Tevye also possessed an appealingly whimsical quality that fits the more compact Stadlen like a glove. Like Zero, Stadlen is light on his feet. He delights in swaying to music. You wouldn't be surprised to learn that this Tevye plays the piano at the local synagogue, because his fingers often seem to be reaching for invisible keys.
Stadlen emanates an earthy gravitas. But because he is still probing new terrain, whenever he craves a surefire laugh he reverts to his stock-in-trade. When, for instance, the Russian constable calls him a "Jewish dog," Stadlen's reply, "How often does a man get a compliment like that?" is delivered so crisply, you might think the line was written by Mel Brooks. But even by opening night, Stadlen already was far along in sculpting and refining his portrayal. He found an original spin on the sentimental duet "Do You Love Me?" which Tevye sings with his wife Golde (Leslie Denniston, who lacks Golde's flintiness), and he was especially affecting in the scene where he sends his daughter Hodel (Kate Manning, who does well by the plaintive "Far From the Home I Love") off to Siberia. But as of opening night, Stadlen was not yet willing to expose the personal pain that is required of a Tevye to make the Act Two scenes of estrangement with his daughter Chava wrenching.
In time he will reach that point, because as an actor Stadlen is as tenacious as a dog with a bone. Unlike the Muny's Producers, which already was as sharp as a serpent's tooth on opening night, the joys and sorrows that define this epic musical are going to become more clearly delineated with every ensuing performance. And as that occurs, the circle that sustains and buoys Fiddler on the Roof once again will become complete.