A production of Fiddler on the Roof succeeds or fails on the strength of its Tevye, and, by that measure, the Westchester Broadway Theatre’s is a success as rich as the baritone of lead actor Bill Nolte. If you’ve been in a Siberian dissident camp since the repertory favorite’s opening in 1964, the tragicomic musical follows Tevye, the devout milkman of Anatevka, a Jewish town in late-Tsarist Russia, as three of his daughters’ marriages and the souring political climate force him to confront a changing world. Nolte is the play’s narrator and conscience, and his shtetl Lear’s stomping, witticisms, and flights of fancy remind us why the character is perhaps American theater’s best-loved representative of the horse-drawn world.
Of course, there are other ways to measure a production, and, by those measures, this one is more modest, especially in the beginning. “Tradition,” the now-canonical celebration of Anatevka’s old ways, moves more like Tevye’s lame horse than a rousing show opener. What were written as laugh lines—“May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”—are rushed or too quiet, and the ensemble occasionally appeared to need a little bit more to do. (To be fair, the cast had finished a matinee earlier on the day we saw the show, and even Nolte took a few minutes to rev up.)
The ensemble could have been stronger, and a few actors seemed to have trouble with dialects. But the main characters hit their marks more pleasingly most of time. The other members of Tevye’s household—his wife, Golde, and his five daughters—provide the kind of family a man like Tevye would dote on, worry about, and argue with. Occasionally, each is more diligent than inspired, but, by the end, both their love for the master of the house and their own hopes are so compelling that they bring almost as much pathos to the play as Tevye himself. Sarah Rolleston, in particular, who plays Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, has the kind of strong but subtle voice you want to hear on a broad range of songs, and Joe Longthorne plays her love interest—the communist Perchik—with a commitment that almost makes you forget this character is often disrespectful and pompous rather than idealistic. And, an underrecognized joy, the open set by John Farrell, reminds the audience how hilariously easy the gossipy community of Anatevka moves in and out of each other’s private space.
But let’s get back to Tevye. It’s a big role that—as originated by the great Zero Mostel on stage and duplicated with variable success a tiresome number of times since then—comes with a lot of history. Nolte lives up to it handily. His Tevye is a dancing, drinking, dreaming, screaming, squawking, charming, singing joy, and, like a cast-iron stove, Nolte only gets warmer as the play goes on, until you want nothing more than to gather around and hear stories of the Old World.
If you want to check out that stove, Fiddler on the Roof runs from January 3 to February 3, and tickets are cheaper during the week or if you buy them for the show only (sans dinner).
Westchester Broadway Theatre
1 Broadway Plz, Elmsford