“Fiddler on the Roof” may be as close to a sure bet as there is in musical theater.
Great songs, rousing dance numbers, a heart-grabbing story that’s both specific and universal, and a larger-than-life protagonist squarely in the middle of it all: There’s not much “Fiddler” lacks.
Except, obviously, the element of surprise. After nearly six decades during which it has seldom receded from public view, one goes to see “Fiddler” not in the spirit of adventure but rather to experience familiar chords of emotion.
To the extent a theatergoer is driven by a spirit of investigation, it inclines toward two core questions: Has this old warhorse lost any of its giddy-up, and does this particular production deliver the goods?
An emphatic no to the first, and an equally forceful yes to the second, as regards the “Fiddler” that opened to a packed house Tuesday night at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. If you feel comfortable seeing a live performance indoors — and of course that’s a big if at this precarious moment — “Fiddler” might be exactly the kind of spirit-lifter you need.
A touring version of Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Broadway production, “Fiddler” features a beautifully understated framing device that connects the past with the present, the Jewish residents of tiny Anatevka in early 20th-century Russia with displaced persons of all times and places.
That time-spanning device is augmented by one of the greatest of all opening numbers, “Prologue: Tradition,” which serves as a prism through which we see and feel subsequent events, from deeply felt loss to eagerly embarked-upon new beginnings.
As Tevye the dairyman, Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov delivers a technicolor performance that’s perhaps a shade more hammy than strictly necessary. But then Tevye has never been a role for underplayers, has it? (Zero Mostel originated the role on Broadway in 1964. I rest my case.)
What Lazarov captures is not just the humor of Tevye — constantly quoting religious sayings that are invariably just a bit off, cajoling God in one-sided conversations to cut him a break — but also his fundamental poignancy.
For all his force of personality, Tevye is ultimately no match for the upheaval he faces from within — as his independent-minded daughters spurn the idea of arranged marriages and break away from the patriarchal tradition so much of his identity rests upon — and without, as he and the other villagers endure a pogrom and eventual expulsion by Russian forces.
(”Witness,” a new online production by the Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre, also takes as its subject Jewish migration in the face of persecution, focusing on an event three decades after the action of “Fiddler.”)
Under the joint direction of Sari Ketter and Shelley Butler, recreating Sher’s original direction, the big set pieces are splendidly executed in “Fiddler.”
“Tradition” launches the show with a blast of energy. In the competitive dance of “To Life,” the exuberance of the Jewish villagers collides with the ominously aggressive movements of the Russians. “Sunrise, Sunset,” a meditation on the passage of time as two young people are joined in matrimony under a chuppah, still carries an ache that no amount of cheesy wedding-reception performances can diminish.
A high point of physical comedy is “Tevye’s Dream,” which unfolds as a hallucinatory riot of masks and stilts and general pandemonium, part of Tevye’s ruse to persuade his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal), to allow one of their daughters to marry the man she loves.
Later, at the end of the duet “Do You Love Me?,” Uzal nimbly brings off a nice bit of business, dodging Tevye’s attempt to nuzzle and signaling a return to marital business as usual. On the other hand, the humor of the matchmaker Yente (Brooke Wetterhahn) has not aged well.
Because Tevye’s three older daughters and the choices they make represent the future, it’s crucial to any “Fiddler” that they not come across as ciphers. Here, they don’t. Kelly Gabrielle Murphy, as Tzeitel, Ruthy Froch, as Hodel, and Noa Luz Barenblat, as Chava, each register distinctively. Their lovely voices elevate “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and later, Froch delivers a moving rendition of “Far From the Home I Love” as Hodel heads off to Siberia to be with her husband, the student revolutionary Perchik (Solomon Reynolds).
The vocal caliber of the cast is strong pretty much across the board. “Miracle of Miracles” has always struck me as one of the “Fiddler” score’s few weak links, but Daniel Kushner, as the timid Motel the tailor, turns it into something special.
That’s “Fiddler,” too. By the powerful finale, with its procession across the stage as the villagers bid farewell to Anatevka in elegiac song and head off to an uncertain future, you might feel a familiar shiver running up your spine — and you may conclude that surprise is overrated.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Original direction by Bartlett Sher. Recreated by Sari Ketter and Shelley Butler. Original choreography by Hofesh Shechter inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins. Recreated by Christopher Evans. Presented by Emerson Colonial Theatre. Through Dec. 26. Tickets $44.50- $149.50. www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com, 888-616-0272