Timeless 'Fiddler' plays sweetly still Review: The musical is as heartwarming today as in 1964, though not quite as spry.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tevye, the milkman protagonist in "Fiddler on the Roof," is a man who sees both sides of every argument. To borrow his favorite phrase, "on the one hand," the touring production at the Lyric Opera House proves this 1964 musical is as heartwarming as ever. "On the other hand," it lacks a little vitality -- even the scenery, whose designer is uncredited, seems washed out.

Consider Tevye himself. Theodore Bikel has played this role more than 1,000 times, and his acting cannot be faulted. As the impoverished father of five daughters -- a turn-of-the-century Russian Jewish villager who cannot afford a dowry for them -- his paternal devotion is unmistakable.

When his oldest daughter rejects the marriage Tevye has arranged, Bikel's compassionate milkman acquiesces fairly quickly to her desire to marry her childhood sweetheart. And when daughter No. 2 falls for a revolutionary student from Kiev, Tevye gives in as well. You can almost see Bikel's heart melt when he witnesses the love in his daughters' eyes.

Even when he writes off his third daughter as "dead" after she marries out of the faith, his subsequent heartbreak is palpable.

So what's "the other hand" about Bikel's performance? Well, consider his delivery of Tevye's yearning daydream song, "If I Were a Rich Man." Usually this song is performed with rising exuberance -- the thought of immense wealth causing the singer to dance for joy. That's not Bikel's style. His rich man is more apt to lean back on his milk cart like a contented cat than to kick up his heels.

This may be because Bikel is simply not a nimble dancer -- a suspicion born out by his other terpsichorean efforts in the show. It's an excusable shortcoming for a man who celebrates his 72nd birthday today. But since this is a musical, and one that takes a sentimentalized look at Jewish hardships on the eve of the Russian Revolution, it would suit the overall tone of the show -- which features Jerome Robbins' original direction and choreography re-created by Sammy Dallas Bayes -- if Bikel brought as much fervor to Tevye's joyousness as he does to his earnestness.

In his 1994 autobiography, Bikel writes: "Tevye is pivotal and everything hinges on the proper concept and execution of this one role." Maybe so, but Tevye also needs an adequate supporting cast, and Bikel has that here.

Rebecca Hoodwin makes a good partner as the milkman's devoted but henpecking wife -- though their delivery of "Sunrise, Sunset" has a perfunctory quality. And as daughter No. 2, Debra Wiseman, a newcomer to the tour, displays the production's loveliest voice in her solo, "Far From the Home I Love."

In addition, the choral work, particularly in the opening number, "Tradition," is stirring -- no small matter for a show whose melodic, ethnic-inflected score (by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) is responsible for much of its charm. And the ensemble dancing, though lacking some freshness, is competently executed.

Before it opened on Broadway more than 30 years ago, "Fiddler on the Roof," adapted by Joseph Stein from the Yiddish stories NTC of Sholom Aleichem, was feared to have limited appeal. Bikel's track record alone proves the groundlessness of that fear.

"The world is changing," Tevye's third daughter tells him. "Some things do not change," he answers. The popularity of this musical is one of those things.

Pub Date: 5/02/96

'Fiddler'

Where: Lyric Opera House

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 11

Tickets: $19-$50

Call: (410) 494-2712

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