‘Fiddler’ raises the roof at Stages

Carissa Massaro (Chava) with Bruce Sabath (Tevye) in “Fiddler on the Roof” through Oct. 5 at Stages St. Louis. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

How many times can one see “Fiddler on the Roof” and continue to find it enjoyable and inspirational? Countless times is the answer, as evidenced by the high-spirited production of the Tony Award-winning musical playing at Stages St. Louis through Oct. 5.

The story of Tevye the dairyman in 1905 in Czarist Russia is based on Yiddish stories by acclaimed author Sholom Aleichem, the pen name of the Russian-Jewish writer Solomon Rabinowitz (1859-1905), often called the Jewish Mark Twain.

In the Stages production, Bruce Sabath plays a high-energy, youthful Tevye, replete with a fine singing voice, solid dramatic skills and the necessary athleticism for the dance numbers in the play.  In contrast to the hulking presence of the worlds best-known Teyve, Zero Mostel, Sabath is actually closer to the original book description of the dairyman as thin and gaunt. As the play opens, we come to see the hermetically sealed Orthodox Jewish “traditions” so precious to Tevye and his fellow villagers in Anatevka being breached by modern ideas of secularism, socialism, communism, Zionism and assimilation.

Tevye’s five daughters are being tugged away from the tradition of their father and his ancestors at the very time when the future of Anatevka and its way of life is under siege.  

Sabath is superb in his dialogues with God, with whom he seems to have an especially intimate and open relationship. Like Abraham and Moses of biblical times, Tevye not only praises God, but also talks back to the Almighty. 

“Sure we are the chosen people,” he says after a terrible incident. “But once in a while couldn’t you choose some other people?”

As Tevye struggles to balance his backbreaking work and maintain the traditions he holds so dear, he is supported and challenged by his wife of 25 years, Golde (superbly portrayed by Kari Ely). If Tevye is a bit of a dreamer, often lost in his private talks with God, Golde is the ultimate practical wife, totally focused on parenting and keeping the family together during turbulent times.  

Sabath and Ely do a spot-on performance of the song “Do You Love Me?” in which Tevye and Golde, who have been married for 25 years after meeting on the day of their wedding, ask each other about love.

In order to marry off their oldest daughter, Tevye and Golde seek the services of Yente the Matchmaker. Tevye’s treasured tradition requires the marriage to be arranged by a matchmaker rather than the result of romantic love. 

Rachel Coloff is an excellent Yente, infusing her role with intelligence and nuance in contrast to some of the cartoonish performances of Yente in other productions.  The friendship between Golde and Yente comes across as genuine and sometimes emotionally moving.

The storys family drama unfolds as Tevye deals with his three eldest daughters, each of whom bucks the system of arranged marriages, falling in love instead. 

Tzeitel (Stephanie Lynn Mason), the oldest, begs her father not to marry her off to the much older, widowed town butcher Lazar Wolf (Christopher Limber), but rather allow her to marry her true love, the humble tailor Motel (Nick Orfanell). 

Soon after he invents a story to tell Golde as to why Tzeitel shouldnt marry the butcher but rather Motel, Teyve must contend with marital pressures from his daughters Hodel (Julie Hanson), who begs to marry Perchik (Jason Michael Evans), a revolutionary sent to Siberia, and Chava (Carissa Massaro), whose desire to marry a non-Jew almost causes Tevye to break in two. That he cannot allow, he tells her.

Kudos to director Michael Hamilton, musical director Lisa Campbell Albert, choreographer Gary John Larosa, scenic designer James Wolk, lighting designer Matthew McCarthy and production stage manager Shawn Pryby for making creative use of a relatively small stage space for a lively production that still seemed fresh after its nearly three-hour running time.

“Fiddler on the Roof” at Stages proves the enduring power of Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish stories and the classic Broadway musical, which has enlivened stages in America and worldwide throughout its 50 years.