Any production of the classic musical "Fiddler on the Roof" begins and ends with Tevye, the show's central character who emerges as a larger-than-life symbol of humility, devotion and good humor. Sure, the intermingled plotlines of historical and intergenerational conflict, adorned as they are with instantly infectious tunes, can mitigate a subpar Tevye. But only when the modest milkman is played by an exceptional actor will the production truly soar.
So it is with great satisfaction that I can report that Virginia Repertory Theatre has employed a bear of a man and a lion of an actor as Tevye. With stints on Broadway and several national tours under his expansive belt, David Benoit brings Tevye to robust life with seam-busting vigor, filling the November theater with a voice nimble enough to deliver rafter-shaking bellows one moment and coquettish whispers the next. Not willing to stop with a grand Tevye, director Richard Parison and his designers have built him a majestic production to inhabit, full of top-notch technical elements and a supporting cast of notables.
In Parison's version, the titular Fiddler doesn't perch atop a roof but hangs suspended in midair, overlooking the village of Anatevka on the eve of the Russian revolution. Change is in the air for the burgh's Jews, who have depended on their traditional ways for generations. It's not just political change either: During the course of the show, each of Tevye's three oldest daughters will challenge her father and his authority on her way toward marriage. One of the delights of this production is enjoying the expected excellence of local musical theater veterans such as Audra Honaker and Brittany Simmons as eldest daughters Tzeitel and Hodel along with the discovery of bright new talents such as the quietly compelling Ally Dods as third daughter, Chava.
At least another half-dozen exceptional performances grace this production, but the great actors represent only a portion of the delight generated. Brian Prather's set design is relatively simple, but lighting designer Robert Perry bathes it in luxurious colors so that the sunsets rival nature and the striated lighting in a train station effectively reflects the fracturing of Tevye's family. In the capable hands of music director Anthony Smith, the show's enchanting score fills each scene with beautiful songs, and choreographer Karen Getz has reproduced much of the original Broadway production's rousing dance numbers. Parison also shows an affinity for staging the quiet scenes, like the sweet "Sabbath Prayer," for maximum effect.
It is an unfortunate side effect of a production that excels triumphantly on so many levels that the very few deficiencies stand out more glaringly. Cary Houseman's milquetoast Rabbi diminishes the scenes in which he's featured, and while Tamara Johnson as Tevye's wife makes a perfect foil for the big man in acting, her singing seems tremulous by comparison. Also, with a score as rich as this one, the lack of a live orchestra is a disappointment.
But these quibbles pale in the face of the overall success that is this "Fiddler." Don't be surprised if you hear many Richmonders humming the infectious strains of "Tradition" or "Sunrise, Sunset" along with "Deck the Halls" this season. S
"Fiddler on the Roof" runs through Jan. 12 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For tickets and information call 282-2620 or go to va-rep.org.