Fifty years ago, Broadway audiences were introduced to Tevye, an impoverished milkman in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka at the turn of the last century. This lovable guy, who was on speaking terms with the Almighty (never mind the conversations were one-sided), believed fiercely in the traditions that kept his community closely knit.
In short order, Tevye and the other characters in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" entered the public consciousness and never really left.
The book by Joseph Stein, inspired by Sholem Aleichem stories, still holds up firmly, while the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock remain infectious. No wonder revivals pop up all the time.
Arena Stage, which has showcased music-theater classics since unveiling its renovated Southwest Washington facility in 2010, offers an effective new take on "Fiddler" that will likely keep the box office humming through the holidays.
Arena artistic director Molly Smith, who led vibrant productions of "Oklahoma" and "The Music Man" (and a less successful "My Fair Lady"), treats "Fiddler" with affection and a refreshingly lack of underlining. There is no revving up of emotions or piling up of sentiment. Everything unfolds at a natural tempo and with an equally natural tone in Arena's in-the-round Fichandler Theater.
(A beaming Harnick, now 90 and the last surviving member of "Fiddler's" creative triumvirate, attended opening night.)
That cast is headed by Jonathan Hadary, who offers a fresh version of Tevye. The role is associated with bigger guys, the likes of Zero Mostel, Topol and Harvey Fierstein. Hadary is on the short, slender side, giving his Tevye an almost impish quality.
With a soft-grained speaking and serviceable singing voice, the actor makes Tevye a regular guy. He doesn't so much dominate the stage as slyly win it over, often with just a bit of sparkle in his eyes.
Rather than milk the character’s humor, Hadary delivers some of the funniest lines matter-of-factly.
And he avoids exaggerating the frequent 'on the other hand' reiterations that are a famous part of Tevye's monologues. (On the other hand, a little more color for one or two of them wouldn't be so unwelcome.)
This winning, ultimately affecting portrayal — Hadary is wonderful in the cathartic closing scenes — finds a perfect match in Ann Arvia's performance as Tevye's wife, Golde. Her nuanced acting includes terrific comic timing, and she brings to her vocal numbers a rich tone and spot-on phrasing.
Arvia and Hadary have a field day in the Act 1 dream sequence (this is the most amusing staging I have encountered of that usually tiresome scene), and they also strike just the right wistful-hopeful note in the Act 2 duet "Do You Love Me?"
Singing is not a strongest suit for others in the ensemble, but there is a lot of spark onstage. Valerie Leonard gives the role of Yente, the determined matchmaker, a vivid spin. Erick Devine does the same as the hapless butcher Lazar Wolf.
Dorea Schmidt, Hannah Corneau and Maria Rizzo are charming as Tevye's marriageable daughters. Joshua Morgan is a charmer as Motel Kamzoil the timid tailor. And Michael Vitaly Sazonov shines as the radical student Perchik, who shakes up the village with scandalous inter-gender dancing.
Speaking of dancing, the original Jerome Robbins choreography (adapted by Parker Esse) is effectively carried out, but the staging of the show’s quietest moments — the Sabbath prayer, the wedding scene — are even more impressive.
Paul Sportelli conducts a nicely paced account of the score and draws polished playing from a small ensemble that produces a klezmer-like palette. Todd Rosenthal's basic set, sensitively lit by Colin K. Bills, and Paul Tazewell's costumes evoke a good deal of atmosphere.
It's good to be reminded of the simple messages in "Fiddler on the Roof" about honor and compromise, love and tolerance, especially at a time when people are again being driven from their homes because of religion or ethnicity.
There may be a lot of change since this musical premiered in 1964, but not all that much progress.