Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov is a wry Tevye in road version of former San Diego director Bartlett Sher’s Broadway revival
Contemporizing classic musicals can be a tricky business. A “Fiddler on the Roof” with a klezmer band onstage? That can work (I’ve seen it). A funk-metal “Fiddler”? Maybe not so much.
But the director Bartlett Sher, a master at reviving both 20th-century workhorses and neglected gems, casts his considerable magic not so much by appending self-consciously “modern” flourishes to those shows as by bringing into bold relief the existing qualities that speak most to us now.
In his richly rewarding 2015 Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” whose worthy touring production is now at the Civic Theatre, Sher — a San Diego political-theater renegade back in the 1980s — does add one subtle contemporary touch.
The show opens with a middle-aged gent in a red parka standing at a train station marked “Anatevka,” the humble Jewish shtetl in early-1900s Russia where the musical unfolds.
The man could be a modern-day scholar, or someone researching his family ancestry. But as he doffs the jacket, he transforms into Tevye, the put-upon patriarch of the much-loved 1964 show.
In a fitting bookend, the figure in the parka also appears in the final scene, as the people of Anatevka, now forced from their homes, circle the stage with their meager belongings.
When the wordless Fiddler of the title plays the melody from “Tradition” that serves as a recurring motif, the final note never sounds — a nod, perhaps, to the eternally unresolved troubles faced not just by Jewish people but by refugees everywhere.
Such sobering moments are leavened by the sense of celebration and good humor that courses through “To Life” and other numbers in the matchless “Fiddler” score by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, set to Joseph Stein’s adaptation of stories by Sholom Alecheim.
While this touring production feels a little long (running close to three hours with one intermission), Sher’s visual imagination, a strong cast and a particularly vibrant 11-member orchestra led by Michael Uselmann make “Fiddler” feel in many ways new again.
The show has a winningly wry Tevye in the veteran Israeli actor and artist Yehezkel Lazarov, who lends charm and winsome humanity to “If I Were a Rich Man” (maybe the greatest song ever to be rendered in the subjunctive tense), as well as “Tradition,” which proves a stunner of a show-opener.
Tradition is both Tevye’s motto and maybe his greatest irritation, particularly since he doesn’t quite know why he follows its edicts. And his sense of it is deeply tested by his eldest daughters Tzeitl (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch) and Chava (Natalie Powers), who each stray from the custom of an arranged marriage to another member of the community.
Those three have an appealing turn on the tuneful waltz “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” about their hopes that Yente (Carol Beaugard) will find them a good (or at least semi-tolerable) mate.
And Froch is a particular standout throughout the show, journeying from the comic ferocity she first displays when Hodel meets her politically strident husband-to-be Perchik (a strong Ryne Nardecchia), to her arresting rendition of the plaintive “Far From the Home I Love,” as Hodel faces up to leaving her family.
Among other good performances, Maite Uzal adds a fitting shot of vinegar as Tevye’s matter-of-fact, ever-skeptical wife, Golde, and Jesse Weil is a jittery comic delight as the young tailor Motel, Tzeitl’s intended.
Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes help make the amusingly spooky “dream sequence” here probably the best I’ve seen, and such “Fiddler” mainstays as the bottle dance also come off well, with sharp choreography by Hofesh Shechter based on Jerome Robbins’ original work.
“Sunrise, Sunset” unfolds against a gorgeous ochre sky; but that backdrop fades to a pale void near show’s end, as the Tsar’s anti-Jewish pogroms turn the villagers out of their homes.
The people of Anatevka have become refugees, fleeing violence and poverty. And where are many of them going?
Then, as now: America.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through June 2.
Where: Broadway/San Diego at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.
Tickets: About $22.50 and up
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100