It is easy to see why “Fiddler on the Roof” has endured. This shaggy tale about a milkman’s life in czarist Russia contains nothing less than the primal elements of epic storytelling: endurance, suffering, nobility, transition, tradition, sacrifice, romance. Mix in songs that have become part of our subconscious Muzak track and “Fiddler” feels as if it always has been with us — and forever will be.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre has revived “Fiddler” (which, according to legend, “saved” the theater in 1971) with Keith Rice as Tevye, a poor man caught in the vise of change in his Jewish shtetl. His children challenge his patriarchy and his village is crumbling under the czar’s boot, which leaves Tevye musing that life is like a fiddler on the roof — precariously balanced.
Michael Brindisi’s production has opened up the Chanhassen stage with a hardscrabble terrain designed by Nayna Ramey. Andrew Cooke’s excellent orchestra is visible, tucked up behind Ramey’s birch trees so that the action flows through and around the music. Tradition undergirds life in Anatevka, a village in 1905, and even if Rice’s Tevye muses to God about the joys of being a rich man, the dairy peddler accepts his fate.
Chanhassen’s production sings and dances well, with choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson instilling the Russian spirit in her hoofers, and voices rising up, notably in Tyler Michaels, Jared Oxborough and Michelle Barber.
Rice fills Tevye with a rumbling baritone that sounds effortless even in the higher registers of “If I Were a Rich Man.” Tevye’s daughters (Serena Brook, Ruthanne Heyward and Caroline Innerbichler) give wistful voice to “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Rice and Barber serenade us all with “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “Tradition” lands with stout anthemic power.
Brook finds the panicky sense of confinement that a Jewish girl in 1905 would have felt when a matchmaker decides her marriage for her. That matchmaker is played by Nancy Marvy with a voice capable of cutting cast iron. Emily Rose Skinner makes the most of her brief moment as Fruma Sara — a witchy ghost in Tevye’s dream.
That dream scene reminds us that Rich Hamson is designing costumes. He has such a sharp eye for fantasy and such a deep understanding of the everyday palette.
Rice always has been an actor who plays to the crowd. He uses that big voice to growl, to tease, to coax an extra laugh here and there. That occasionally pushes his performance outside the fraught life of Tevye, but Rice also has a genuinely good heart. His vulnerability is evident even beneath those goofy grins.
Brindisi’s production could feel one level more cohesive if the accents were uniform. Some actors embrace the Russian Steppe, while others sound as if they’re living in Cokato. It’s a small thing, but this goes to creating a universe where we feel the pain of real people caught in hard times. Fortunately, Brindisi feels this stuff deeply, too, and that emotion fills this “Fiddler” to the rooftops.