Fiddler on the Roof celebrated its big 5-0 onstage this year, and to commemorate the anniversary of its original run on Broadway, Arena Stage has brought Joseph Stein's powerful book and Jerry Bock's moving music back to life. Director Molly Smith stays true to the emotional tugs of the original, finding the right balance of humor and despair, as a Jewish father deals with his daughters and struggles with progress over tradition.
The show opens with a lone fiddler playing high above the rafters and quickly introduces us to Tevye (Jonathan Hadary), a Jewish dairyman living in the seemingly insignificant Russian village of Anatevka on the eve of the Russian Revolution. With wife Golde (Ann Arvia) and five daughters by his side, Tevye is a poor man but rich in love and stature. Although tradition is obviously the moral compass of his life, Tevye comes to the realization that he must accept change after each of his daughters breaks from tradition and falls in love with men who have not been approved by local matchmaker Yente (Valerie Leonard). But as daughter Chava (Maria Rizzo) also learns when falling for Christian-born Fyedka (Kurt Boehm), not all beliefs can be cast aside so easily.
Hadary is a delight as the quick-witted Tevye. On one hand, he is funny without being over the top; on the other hand, he commands attention with his singing, despite not being the most solid voice; on the other hand, he is warm and caring; and on the other hand he has wonderful chemistry with each of the actresses playing his daughters. Arvia is the perfect match for Hadary, playing the sharp-tongued Golde with a little angst but a deep-down love for her husband.
Rizzo is purely divine, especially in some touching scenes with Hadary. Dorea Schmidt and Hannah Corneau as daughters Tzeitel and Hodel, respectively, both shine. The trio is a real treat on "Matchmaker." As the three daughters' beaux, Michael Vitaly Sazonov as the young revolutionary Perchik, Joshua Morgan as the shy Motel, and Kurt Boehm as the noble Fyedka pair beautifully with their lady counterparts.
The incredible lyrics of Sheldon Harnick are on full display, with the company's renditions of "Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset," and "The Rumor" all packing a powerful emotional punch. The highlight of the show comes during "The Dream," with Smith employing a wondrous and unique vision of the dream sequence. Here, Paul Tazelwell's costumes and Anne Nesmith's wigs go beyond what's expected. Set designer Todd Rosenthal thinks a bit too minimally on the Fichandler's theater-in-the-round space, yet creates a rustic look that works well.
Several lively dance sequences bring out an enjoyment in Fiddler that is often lacking in productions today, with the infamous bottle-on-head scene evoking an easy smile. Even when the story takes a turn for the worse, the characters and their strong beliefs make the audience feel hope for their future — knowing that love will guide them through whatever awaits. That's the mark of a great story and the reason that Fiddler has been a staple in theaters for 50 years and why it's not too early to make plans for its centennial.