Tevye, the milkman of Anatevka, is a man who weighs his decisions carefully. On the one hand, this. On the other hand, that. He is a fair man and a good man.
So, to borrow from Tevye: On the one hand, Fiddler on the Roof is a 48-year-old musical that many theatergoers have seen before, perhaps two or three times. On the other hand, there’s a young generation for whom the story of the Russian Jew, his daughters, their suitors and the oppression of the tsar at the turn of the 20th century is new and capable of opening their eyes wide. Both generations are in attendance at Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista, where Producing Artistic Director Kathy Brombacher, who’s retiring at the end of the company’s 2012 season, directs a warm and winning Fiddler on the Roof.
The measure of any production of the 1964 classic based on stories by Sholom Aleichem is its Tevye. David Ellenstein, who is artistic director of the North Coast Rep, makes his acting debut at Moonlight and brings tenderness, generosity of spirit and well-timed humor to Fiddler’s emotional anchor. He moves back and forth across Moonlight’s open-air stage with the sheer jauntiness called for at one moment and, at another, the world-weariness of a man deeply devoted to God and family whose world and traditions are under siege. As Tevye’s stalwart but superstitious wife Golde, Victoria Strong lives up to her surname, and among Tevye’s daughters, Charlene Koepf as Hodel demonstrates a notably lovely singing voice.
Fiddler is rich with enduring Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick songs, of course: “Matchmaker,” “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Do You Love Me?”, “Sunrise, Sunset.” The latter, a bittersweet backdrop to the wedding of Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel (Alexis Grenier), is a highlight of the lengthy but engrossing first act. Ellenstein and Strong nail “Do You Love Me?” in Act 2. It’s a quiet, romantic aside before the turmoil of the story’s dark climax when the villagers are forced from their homes.
One glitch on opening weekend: Yente’s microphone dropped out for a second or two. Maybe it was Tevye’s daughters’ handiwork: “I’ll choose my own husband, thank you very much.”
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat