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Camelot's 'Fiddler' is a charmer

Sometimes a play whisks you into its world and you are immersed in the beat of its heart. So it is with the "Fiddler on the Roof" running through Jan. 11 at Camelot Theatre in Talent.

This is a world of kosher homes, long beards, prayer shawls, arranged marriages, a people struggling to survive amid a hostile environment. It all starts with Tevye, the poor milkman who talks to God while trying to cope with headstrong daughters and a changing world.

Tevye is not only one of the most compelling characters in all musical theater, he's the key. Get him wrong and nothing else works. Get him right and everything falls into place. And David King-Gabriel's Tevye is a textured creation that will etch itself in memory.

With Joseph Stein’s adaptation of Sholem Aleichem's warm-hearted stories told through Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s magnificent music and lyrics — 18 songs and not a bad one in the bunch — one might love "Fiddler on the Roof" even if without Tevye. But he's the lens.

In 1905, in the imaginary shtetl, or small Jewish village, of Anatevka in the Pale of Settlement, the part of western Russia where Jews were required to live, Tevye honors the ancient ways that give his life meaning. And they are slipping through his fingers.

One of the charms is the celebration of (and mourning, and even satirizing of) a culture that no longer exists. The hardscrabble nature that shtetl life is reveals itself in the rough hovels designed by Don Zastoupil against a projection of wheat stalks suggesting the endless plains of Ukraine.

There is a nod here to the modernist, Russian-French-Jewish artist Marc Chagall, whose dream-like works whispered of his native village in Belarus. One of Chagall's paintings portrayed a "fiddler on the roof," emblematic of a precarious existence.

The show is drenched in klezmer, the music of Eastern European Jews, performed spiritedly throughout by a crack, seven-piece band led by keyboardist Karl Iverson. The song "Sunrise, Sunset" is often performed at Jewish celebrations still. And there's the iconic bottle dance at the end of the first act, in which Perchik leads the guests at Tzeitel and Motel's unconventional wedding in a lively dance with wine bottles balanced on their heads. Mazel tov!

Through it all, Tevye, the milkman philosopher, shares his hopes, dreams and fears with God, addressing the audience directly as if we were the deity. Wearing a scraggly beard, King-Gabriel paints Tevye as humble, honest and gently mocking, perhaps closer to Zero Mostel's comic Tevye than to Topol's tragic one. But very much his own, deeply human and faintly ridiculous as he clings to the past. And, oy vey, does he have troubles.

When his horse goes lame he pulls his own milk cart. When his wife, the formidable (but not quite shrewish) Golde (Kathleen Marrs) says she has news, he gets a big laugh by chanting a quick prayer.

The proximate cause of his troubles is the couple's daughter Tzeitel (Lauren Green), who, defying tradition, wants to marry a poor, young tailor, Motel (Barry Wiedrich), instead of the wealthy old butcher, Lazar (Paul Jones), chosen for her by Yente (Dianna Warner), the matchmaker.

There are rumblings of crises political as well as personal. A stranger, Perchik (Tyler Ward) appears with radical new ideas. The Russian constable (Ian Wessler) warns of a "little unofficial demonstration" (read: a pogrom, or an orgy of murder, rape and looting of the shtetl's Jews by the surrounding Chrisian majority). The constable may be a decent man, but he is powerless to stop the sweep of history.

And Tevye's troubles are only beginning. Each successive daughter makes a match that strays farther from tradition. First there was Tzeitel's choosing of her husband, who is at least a member of the community, based on love. Then Hodel (Julia Holden-Hunkins) falls in love with the secular Jew and Marxist revolutionary Perchik. And then Chava (Keely McLean) elopes with Fyedka, a goy, a man outside the faith.

The plot involving Tevye's daughters tampers (fiddles?) with one of the oldest traditions in comedy, which declared from the Greeks to Shakespeare and beyond that the obstacle to the union of the young lovers was an angry man of the older generation whose objective was to thwart the lovers' chance at happiness.

Tevye opposes Tzeitel's love match. But he lacks the intractable will (or rather the wont) of the senex iratus, the angry old man. A little begging by Tzeitel, some reassurance from Motel (he'll get a used sewing machine to improve his business!), and after mulling it over ("Tevye's Monologue"), he quickly caves in, and even celebrates with his daughter ("Miracle of Miracles"). It's just the start of his complex arc.

Other denizens of Anatevka spring to life as well: Dianna Warner's gossipy matchmaker, Grant Shepherd's ancient rabbi, Paul Jones' lonely butcher, especially in the scene in which he gets Tevye drunk while angling for the hand of his daughter.

It's amazing how fresh all this feels. Credit Daniel Stephens, who not only directed with relish but choreographed. The whole things is done with minimal sets and props (offset by lots of moody projections), to leave room for movement and dancing by a cast of some two dozen actors and dancers.

When the tsar issued the Manifesto of October 17, 1905, which extended certain rights to Russian citizens, pogroms, unofficially sanctioned by the authorities, erupted in hundreds of shtetls, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Jews. When the citizens of Anatevka flee, their exodus is staged by Stephens in an indelible image.

Hanging over all the humanity, the pathos and humor and gentle satire, is a tragic note of meta-dramatic irony. Many fleeing the tsar would have wound up in Poland and elsewhere where, a generation later, they would be sought out by the bearers of Hitler's final solution.

Once in a while a sort of incandescence fills the air onstage and you know why you come to live theater. This is one of those times.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer and reviewer. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Kathleen Marrs and David King-Gabriel (background) play Golde and Tevye in 'Fiddler on the Roof,' running through Jan. 11 at Camelot Theatre. Photo courtesy of Steve Sutfin