Memorable moments rarely stop in this ‘Fiddler’

At a preshow Utah festival orientation, a moderator asked who in the audience had never seen “Fiddler on the Roof.” Not a single person raised a hand. The good news is, this production demonstrates why the 1964 musical deserves that kind of popularity.

Director/choreographer Jim Christian brings such vibrancy to the material that you feel as if the songs and dialogue were invented yesterday.

The first act is pure Jewish-American vaudeville, as the milkman Tevye (Matthew Henerson), in a small village in Czarist Russia, tries to marry off one of his five daughters while remaining true to his religion and traditions. The second act has a sharply contrasting epic sweep as the changing times force Tevye to not only bend tradition, but to flee, along with his neighbors, his country.

Christian is equally adept at the vaudeville humor, the musical comedy spirit and the tragic undertow. The memorable moments rarely stop.

There’s the deliciously loony opening number with all the characters trying to explain themselves; the lightly self-mocking wistfulness of “If I Were a Rich Man”; the plaintively staged “Sabbath Prayer”; the frantic and frightening “Tevye’s Dream”; and the surprisingly tender “Anatevka,” in which the villagers sing fondly of the homeland they are about to leave behind. (Christian’s movement is particularly effective in that final number, with much of the choreography consisting of occasional hand extensions, head turns, and slight shifts in posture.)

The director also makes magnificent use of the nonspeaking fiddler (Aaron Haines) who comes to symbolize the great upheaval of the times. Christian exhibits such a delicate touch for all of the script’s different facets, that you suspect there are few genres he would be incapable of excelling in.

Henerson is both broad and understated enough to make for a fully realized Tevye. He has the exaggerated facial features and vocal inflections to handle comedy, yet possesses the muscular frame of an “ordinary” man, so that we believe this is a character who toils the soil.

Melinda Pfundstein is a sensitive, enormously likable eldest daughter, and Melinda Parrett makes for a Yente-the-matchmaker who is humorously and genuinely eccentric.

Jo Winiarski’s jaw-dropping set is backed by what looks like a papier-mâché horizon often highlighted by a stunningly lit quarter moon. You feel as if you can smell this town.

The extraordinary attention to detail makes you bond with these characters. Even though Tevye’s story is specific, there’s a universality to this production that makes you feel a personal connection. You want to take this world home with you.

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