To life! Director and choreographer Donna Feore's production of Fiddler on the Roof at Stratford bubbles over with it. All the love and pain, joy and sadness of living are found on her stage – and, during a few propulsive dance numbers, even spill right into the audience.
First and foremost, a glass of schnapps must be raised to Scott Wentworth's sweet-and-sour performance as Tevye, the long-suffering Jewish milkman living in Tsarist Russia at the centre of this much-loved 1964 musical. Seen early in the show astride two miniature houses designed by Allen Moyer, the long-time Stratford company member is the musician on the rooftops in this production – though his instrument is not a fiddle, but his very expressive vocal chords.
Wentworth can turn his raspy voice from gravel into boulders when furious, or let it dissolve into a steaming bowl of aw-shucks soup when softened by his daughters, but his main trick is to let that already deep baritone plummet like an elevator with its cords cut for sardonic emphasis at the ends of lines. He gets a laugh with even the corniest joke here, because of the virtuosic technique behind the not-quite-naturalism of his delivery.
Perhaps, Wentworth takes his vocal contortions too far at times – for instance, emitting a cartoonish squeak when mocking, sounding too contemporary a note amid the folksy world of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, whose short stories inspired Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's musical.
Stratford's Anatevka is, indeed, often invaded by gestures, facial expressions and accents, Jewish or otherwise, from an ocean or a century away that Feore might have been more assiduous in trimming.
But so what? On the crucial elements of the drama and characterization, Feore's production gets it spot-on. The first act introducing to us to this small village and its threatened Jewish community builds non-stop to its heart-wrenching climax in a particularly ill-timed pogrom.
The scene where Tevye and butcher Lazar Wolf toast their good fortune at the town inn, only to have an unexpected encounter with the local Russians they coexist with uneasily, has explosive energy. After a gentile interloper's long, sustained opening note – sung by Lee Siegel, whose lungs also impressed in Jesus Christ Superstar – a mad dance scene erupts with legs as high as an elephant's eye. There are more moments of pure, physical pleasure to come as Tevye relates his wild dream about Fruma-Sarah or the local Jewish men and women dance together for the first time at a wedding.
Wentworth's tenderhearted tyrant plays particularly well off Kate Hennig as his rough-hewn wife, Golde; and Steve Ross's well-meaning, short-tempered Lazar Wolf along the way.
Of the three Tevye daughters who challenge their village's traditions by selecting their own matches, only Keely Hutton, as the shy Chava, really shines and strongly convinces that she is madly in love. (She has to be, since her love is most dangerous, being outside the faith.)
But drawing Tevye's daughters as unexceptional village girls in run-of-the-mill romances actually takes some of the Broadway sheen off this, at times, schematic musical – and makes its little moments more poignant.
Perhaps it's from having Ravi and Asha Jain's play, A Brimful of Asha, about an Indian-Canadian family trying to arrange a marriage for their son today fresh in mind, but I found myself more firmly on the side of tradition here than in previous productions. Tevye is probably right. His daughters would forget these men soon enough and be spared many hardships if denied them, but he's incapable of denying them. This is his biggest strength and biggest weakness.
Fiddler's story of tensions between adapting and assimilation, tradition and change – and how there never really is a single, right choice – is one that resonates strongly in a Canadian context. The multicultural cast of Jews and Russians at Stratford with their diversity of accents only emphasizes the universality of the tale.
In the end, the only quibbles are musical – a thin or wobbly female voice here or there (most unexpectedly from Hennig), and a surprising number of musical cues that were jumped or missed. But it's hard to argue against the magic of a production that brought tears to my eyes twice – once with joy, once with sadness – before intermission. L'chaim!