Alfred Molina in Fiddler on the Roof(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Alfred Molina in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Jerome Robbins, who originally staged Fiddler on the Roof, was an advocate of telling the audience at the top of a show what it's about to see. This savvy approach draws an audience in, points it in a direction, and avoids confusion at any later juncture. The way that Robbins, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer Jerry Bock, and the first Fiddler cast put the well-considered dictum into practice stands now as one of musical comedy's genuinely magnificent opening numbers, "Tradition."

The sweeping introduction remains extremely moving in the current revival, which is directed by David Leveaux and for which Jonathan Butterell has overseen the musical staging with obvious attention to Robbins's blueprints. By the time the "Tradition" sequence finishes and everyone understands how the Jewish population of fabulist Sholom Aleichem's Anatevka goes about its bustling familial and communal business, it's safe to say that many in the audience have surrendered their hearts to the work of the creators (including librettist Joseph Stein) and are already tearing up even while smiling broadly.

Since Robbins was establishing a tradition with his approach -- or if not establishing one, codifying it succinctly -- it's gratifying that the opening number is titled "Tradition" and puts the audience on notice that what follows will concern the subject's very human aspects. While Fiddler on the Roof concerns the milkman Tevye grappling with tradition as his five daughters contemplate marriage, the musical itself suggests the genre's resilient traditions and the conditions under which they can be flouted.

Fiddler on the Roof is a traditional musical as defined post-1943 and Oklahoma!. It boasts a score made of discreet songs growing out of characters' specific situations -- and what a score it is! The Harnick and Bock material is right at home in a theater but much of it ("Matchmaker," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Sabbath Prayer," "Miracle of Miracles," etc.) also sounds like, well, traditional ethnic songs that a klezmer band might have struck up anytime during the past 150 years. Yet Bock and Harnick aren't averse to, umm, fiddling with tradition, as they do grandly in the inventive second-act song "Do You Love Me?"

Besides adhering to general musical theater traditions, Robbins and crew also established specific traditions in creating Fiddler on the Roof, and this is where the drawbacks to the current production -- which is always on the mark in the ensemble numbers -- begin. Most notably, tradition has not been honored in regard to the casting of Tevye. One of the great male roles in a musical, the mischievous and impassioned milkman who argues with God over changes the world is forcing on him is a fellow within whom joy and sorrow battle for supremacy. He's a nexus of contradictions, as is indicated by the constant "on the one hand, on the other hand" debates that he conducts with himself. He's loving, playful, and sure of himself until he isn't.

In Tevye's first song, "If I Were a Rich Man," he questions God about a "vast eternal plan." It's an outburst that serves to pull the audience further into the show and into the man's plight; if it doesn't register, Fiddler is in a bit of trouble. The disappointing news is that it doesn't register here as anything more than a beguiling turn. The usually superb actor Alfred Molina doesn't draw on the depths of feeling that must be evidenced if the heart and soul Fiddler has in milkman's cartfuls is to be realized. Molina gives an adequate, even likable performance as Tevye spars with his wife Golde (Randy Graff), the matchmaker Yente (Nancy Opel), the butcher Lazar Wolf (David Wohl), his five daughters (Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly, Tricia Paoluccio, Lea Michele, Molly Ephraim), and his daughters' suitors (John Cariani, Robert Petkoff, David Ayers). He sings the songs well, dances with brio, and shakes his head and fist at the heavens with conviction but he misses Tevye's inner flame; at best, he's a pilot light.

Comparisons, often called odious, may also be inevitable. Pre-opening, word about Molina's performance was already circulating on the Main Stem as not being up to that of the part's first interpreter, Zero Mostel. This is true enough: Mostel had the goods, but that doesn't mean Tevye can't be played by other actors with different persuasive powers. It also doesn't mean that, as some show-biz buzz has it, the play is denatured if Tevye isn't played by a Jewish actor or someone "acting" pointedly Jew-ish. (That extends to the casting at large.) When you think of it, such comments border on being racist; Jews haven't cornered the market on the kind of solar-plexus oomph that Tevye represents. As a matter of fact, Molina -- and I don't know if he's Jewish or not -- had a Tevye-like magnitude when he played Diego Rivera in the film Frida.

Laura Michelle Kelly, Lea Michele, Molly Ephraim, Sally Murphy, andTricia Paoluccio in Fiddler on the Roof(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Laura Michelle Kelly, Lea Michele, Molly Ephraim, Sally Murphy, and
Tricia Paoluccio in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
This Fiddler on the Roof can lay claim to virtues that somewhat offset its central deficiency. Looking different from the Marc Chagall world that will perhaps forever be associated with the piece thanks to its promotional artwork, this mounting stresses the script's more wintry aspects; costume designer Vicki Mortimer, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, and the Acme Sound partners follow suit. Set designer Tom Pye places barren winter birches around as if he were working on a Chekhov opus. Chagall does, however, get a nod during Tevye's hilarious made-up dream: When Tevye insists to Golde that he's seen his daughter Tzeitel and the tailor Motel as lovers, they're flown in to hang like figures in a Chagall magic-realist canvas.

Among the hard-working cast, Randy Graff -- always a steady presence -- is a firm Golde and the five daughters not only sing well and dance gracefully but also look like sisters. As Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava (respectively), Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly, and Tricia Paoluccio are all lovely. Nancy Opel (who replaced Barbara Barrie late in previews) has yet to fit herself completely into Yente's shoes, and the new-to-the-score song that she's been given to chant with Marsha Waterbury and Joy Hermalyn isn't up to Bock-Harnick standards. (Note: During the breathtaking "Sabbath Prayer" sequence, when candle-lighting families are scattered across the huge Minskoff stage, it looks as if Yente is on her knees. Talk about breaking tradition! Jews prostrate themselves before God or remain standing but they never kneel.) Robert Petkoff gives the radical Perchik a properly short fuse and John Cariani -- whose body English makes him seem manipulated by strings -- plays the gawky Motel as a figure of good fun.

As the story of a man marrying off daughters and losing them in the process, Fiddler on the Roof has an uncanny similarity to two quite disparate works of fiction: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children. By the time Tevye has pulled his cart around the stage a few times, he indeed gives the impression of a protagonist in something that might be titled Father Courage and his Children. The piece of work that the Fiddler progenitors constructed isn't far from the level of these predecessors -- that is, when it's done right. This production, guided with inconsistency by David Leveaux, is not quite right enough.