WATERTOWN — As you settle into your seat at New Repertory Theatre for a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,’’ that beloved but very familiar warhorse, you don’t really expect to have one of the most rewarding theatrical experiences of the year.
But darned if that’s not exactly what director Austin Pendleton proceeds to deliver in a vibrantly alive production of “Fiddler’’ that stars Jeremiah Kissel as Tevye, a Jewish dairyman in the early 20th-century Russian shtetl of Anatevka, sweating and struggling to cope with convulsive change in every corner of his life and his world.
This “Fiddler’’ will break your heart and lift it, sometimes in the same moment. While Pendleton’s affection for the landmark musical is palpable — he was a member of the original 1964 Broadway cast before going on to a distinguished career as an actor and director — he is after something deeper than nostalgia. Pendleton makes clear that he understands, in his marrow, what a wrenching journey “Fiddler’’ is, has to be, beyond all the folksy humor, memorable songs, and exuberant dance sequences.
And Kissel? Boston audiences know what a great actor he is, so you can’t call his virtuosic performance as Tevye a surprise, exactly. But it’s still exhilarating to watch Kissel blend his comic instincts and timing with the depth and fearlessness of the tragedian he also is. These are the very traits required to fully embody Tevye, possessed by the actors, from Zero Mostel on, who have successfully wrestled with a character who is both Everyman and larger-than-life.
As is often the case with musicals, even the best ones, “Fiddler’’ loses some steam in Act Two. Then again, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick set the bar awfully high in Act One, which is filled to overflowing with gems. Pendleton’s cast makes sure they shine, starting with a rousing, show-opening rendition of “Tradition’’ by Kissel and the ensemble, during which the villagers gather in tight circles on the stage, the first of numerous striking images by the director.
“Fiddler’’ is a story of Jewish identity and experience, of persecution and displacement, and, ultimately, of the kind of resilience that helps people get through separations from family and friends that may be permanent. For all its rich specificity of time, place, ethnicity, and custom, “Fiddler’’ touches on universal themes to an extent that few other musicals can match, up to and including Tevye’s imploring conversations with God, whom the dairyman addresses with no small amount of pique and perplexity.
Tevye and his wife, Golde — portrayed by Amelia Broome, a fine actress who appears convincingly beleaguered but does not look quite careworn enough for the character — have five daughters. Of those, the three eldest defy their father’s authority in their choice of husbands, selecting their own mates rather than submit to or wait for an arranged match.
Meanwhile, the threat of a pogrom looms over the inhabitants of Anatevka, signaled hauntingly by Pendleton when four Russian officers walk onstage and stand silently and menacingly near Tevye, Golde, and the others as they sing “May the Lord protect and defend you,’’ in “Sabbath Prayer.’’ The choreography by Kelli Edwards, alternately flowing and explosive, is skillfully executed by the ensemble in the “To Life’’ sequence, when the villagers warily join a dance with the Russian soldiers, an air of combative resistance palpable in their movements.
Abby Goldfarb, a subtly expressive actress, is just superb as the oldest daughter, Tzeitel, who breaks sharply with tradition by choosing to marry for love. Her chosen is Motel, a poor and initially timid tailor, the role Pendleton played in 1964, portrayed here with wit and feeling by Patrick Varner. Also delivering excellent performances are Sarah Oakes Muirhead and Victoria Britt as daughters Hodel and Chava, respectively. Goldfarb, Muirhead, and Britt team up winningly in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,’’ shading the song delicately in its passage from humor to poignancy.
The always-enjoyable Bobbie Steinbach is a hoot as Yente the matchmaker, and David Wohl projects stolid decency as Lazar Wolf the butcher. Ryan Mardesich summons the requisite fervor as Perchik, a radical student who falls in love with Hodel, while Dan Prior does strong work as Fyedka, whose marriage to Chava opens a breach with Tevye because Fyedka is not Jewish.
Alas, one weak spot in the production arrives at a crucial moment: The cruel disruption by the Russian soldiers of the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel. The wedding is so sparsely adorned that the soldiers do little more than tip over some chairs and force the guests to overturn a table. Presumably Pendleton wanted to convey the poverty in Anatevka, that the villagers had nothing to destroy, but the scene is not as devastating as it should be.
More often, though, Pendleton adds deft touches that are almost poetic in their effect. When Golde tells Tevye of Chava’s marriage, Britt, as Chava, sits between the couple, looking distraught, invisible to them, like she’s already been erased from the family. The Fiddler of the title, played by Dashiell Evett (the son of choreographer Edwards and actor Benjamin Evett) is onstage throughout the show, virtually silent as he observes the action, occasionally joining in a dance.
Later, when Chava tries to talk to her father while they are seated near each other, Tevye holds the hand of the Fiddler, kneeling by his side, throughout the anguished conversation between father and daughter. It’s as if Tevye is trying, against all odds, to hold on to one final vestige of tradition.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, Mainstage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through Jan. 1. Tickets $35-$65, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.