Poor Motel the Tailor. Early in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the best compliment that musical theater’s favorite impoverished dork can get from his future sister-in-law is, “At least he doesn’t want to turn the world upside down.”
Everything in the little shtetl of Anatevka does get turned upside in Ten Thousand Things Theater’s scrappy and overtly comic production of the classic musical. This reduced staging has just eight actors and one dedicated musician; every actor but Steven Epp, the outstanding Tevye, plays multiple roles. Thankfully, each of the actresses portraying his daughters does get to marry a different actor — if not, this production would be more “Book of Mormon” than “Fiddler.”
As is, the staging is already rather farcical. Director Michelle Hensley and her cast milk all the jokes in Jerry Bock’s book while adding a few of their own (an Anatevkan villager strolls through the aisles, peddling walleye). The songs by Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein are all here, but some are more spoken than sung, and many are limited to one chorus. The staging feels more like a play with music than a musical.
Also: It’s not very tragic and not very Jewish. The costuming and customs have been abstracted, likely to make the show more widely relatable. It’s an idea that has merit, but bomb threats were called in Monday to Jewish community centers across the country, including one in Minnesota. If you prefer to leave the theater emotionally invested in these Russian Jews facing the last czar’s pogroms, this staging isn’t for you.
Nor is it for you if you like basic bells and whistles such as evocative sound and lighting design. Ten Thousand Things often tours its bare-bones productions to nontraditional venues, and it’s a credit to the Twin Cities theater scene that many top actors sign on. Epp — a veteran of the late, great Theatre de la Jeune Lune — is small and wiry, but adopts the posture of a more imposing Tevye by rocking back on his heels and rounding his chest. He’s immensely watchable.
The three actresses double as various male characters, and the other three male actors portray various females. They are a talented bunch. That said, it’s crucial that “Fiddler” audiences believe that these couples are so in love they will break poor Tevye’s heart if they marry. The cross-dressing rom-com vibe doesn’t jibe with plot. Attentive “Fiddler” fans will recall that Tevye actually has five daughters. Shprintze and Bielke are represented here by a pair of conjoined puppets, and admittedly, this is hysterical. But the gags pile up too high.
Dennis Spears, who channels RuPaul to play Yente in drag, doubles as the constable carrying out the czar’s eviction notices. He does get help from the stage manager when he storms Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding reception, but unfortunately, two people knocking over a table fails to send audiences out into intermission with a keen sense of foreboding.
In fact, the actors had to start applauding loudly to give the crowd a clue that Act I had ended. This suggests that many were seeing the musical for the first time. Which is great, but also disconcerting, because this entertaining riff on “Fiddler” is no substitute for a production that gets viewers bawling by the end. As Tevye would say, it’s tradition.