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Review: Topol lives up to legend status in ‘Fiddler’

Wed., Sept. 2, 2009, 5:10 p.m.

Two observations about this national touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof”:

• The show is timeless – as powerful today as it was in 1964.

• It features a milkman who really knows how to milk a laugh.

I’m talking about Chaim Topol, of course, and after seeing him dominate this show on opening night Tuesday at the INB Performing Arts Center, I finally know why he is so legendary in this role.

He plays the dairyman Tevye with an astonishing repertoire of low grumbles, high falsettos, comic double-takes, eyebrow twitches, beard strokes, broad slapstick and poignant nuance, all developed in the course of 2,500 performances.

It’s a remarkable combination of Topol eccentricities and Topol comic mastery. Some viewers might make the case that he hams it up a little bit too much. Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of him for three solid hours. Even when he was a bit over the top, I couldn’t wait to see what he would do next. Repeat the word “Poppa” three times in a row, each time higher and sillier? Check. Do a double-take in the direction of God? Check. Caper about the stage, arms outstretched like a man 40 years younger? Check.

And you can’t argue with the results. This “Fiddler on the Roof” is as funny, as riveting and as emotional as any “Fiddler” I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. Topol gets 75 percent of the credit for that.

Let’s dole out the rest of the credit, too. Susan Cella is an ideal foil as Golde, Tevye’s long-suffering wife. The supporting cast is strong from top to bottom. The pit orchestra, conducted by David Andrews Rogers, has a rich, full sound.

The big dance numbers are expertly delivered – I especially liked the way “To Life” ends up with the dancers draped wildly over the furniture. The “Sunrise, Sunset” number drained tear ducts all over the theater Tuesday.

And although I wouldn’t call this production a “spectacle,” it has an ingenious set design. Its huts, barns, trees and village scenes glide smoothly around on tracks and turntables, as gracefully as the show’s dancers.

Finally, let’s give due credit to the show itself, created by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, from the stories by Sholem Aleichem.

“Fiddler on the Roof” manages to encapsulate, in a funny, entertaining and deeply satisfying way, a complex chapter in Jewish history – the pogroms and the dispersion of Jews from Russia. It also illuminates many ancient Jewish traditions, including the Sabbath, the dances and the wedding rites.

Yet “Fiddler” makes the story universal. It is the story of humanity, told with love, humor and compassion. If that isn’t high art, then I don’t know what is.

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