Old habits die hard. Especially when the habits are religious traditions and the agents of change seek to persecute those traditions. "Fiddler on the Roof," written by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, directed by Phyllis B. Gitlin for the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, is a moving and painful account of the conflict.
Set in 1905, in the village of Anatevka, Russia, the story features Tevye (Martin Feldman). He's a poor milkman, a dedicated husband/father, and a devout Jew. He's married to Golde (Harriet Whitmyer). They've got five daughters. They include Tzeitel (Jennifer Bales), Hodel (Melissa Deni), Chava (Sara Lipowsky), Shprintze (Hannah Smith), and Bielke (Mariyah Duffie).
The three eldest want boyfriends. Their choice of suitors, though, exasperates Tevye. Not least because they forgo the services of Yente the matchmaker (Roxanne Martinez). Tzeitel rejects a wealthy butcher, Lazar Wolfe (Richard DeVicariis). Instead, she choses a poor tailor, Motel (Jeremy Krasovic). Hodel chooses Perchik (Dennis Adrian Dyck), the family tutor full of revolutionary ideas. Chava chooses Fyedka (Evan Battle) because he shares her love of reading.
The story's bittersweet. It's not just that Tevye has to make a hardscrabble living, to ensure good marriages for his daughters, to keep the faith. He also has to contend with changing social values and the threat of pogroms.
Gitlin emphasizes the sweet over the bitter. The three oldest daughters are bubbly and vivacious. The low-key courtship scenes and the wedding are exuberant. The scenes of daily life are hustle bustle engaging. The family may be poor but they have each other and they have their religion.
The production's success depends on simplicity. Here, the contrast between cramped quarters and soaring dreams rings true. Gitlin shows a remarkable sense of space. She creates busyness and activity without making the production seem crowded and chaotic. As a result, the production is both intimate and airy. When Tevye speaks to God, you feel the sky open up. When he speaks to his wife and his three oldest daughters, it's as close as close can be.
The Mainstage's proscenium stage is especially effective. At times it houses up to 24 characters at one time. Whether it's a yard, a tavern, or a bedroom, we're smack dab in the middle of the characters' lives. Their joys and tribulations are our joys and tribulations.
The two leads are well cast. Feldman shines the long-suffering, ever-hopeful Tevye. In his day-to-day life he rolls with the punches, soldiers on. When he prays to his God, though, he opens up, like he's talking to his favorite bartender. His opposite is Whitmyer's Golde. She's hardheaded. She keeps everyone, including her quixotic husband, in check. Together they form the family's core, a core tested by events changing all around them.
The Fiddler (Brenna Hanlan) lyrically holds things together. She and her music represent tradition and stability in a story of far-reaching change. That's the best thing about this production. Music articulates the joys and the challenges that Tevye and his family face. As the family marches off at the end to God-knows-where, only the music, alas, remains.
Performances are 8pm, Friday and Saturday, and 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until August 16. Tickets are $14 - $21. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street, Long Beach, CA 90804. For more information, call (562) 494-1014, option 1, or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.