A fiddler on the roof? Sounds crazy, no? Actually, the image of a violinist trying to create beauty while standing inches from the abyss no doubt feels familiar to anyone running an arts organization in today’s economy. Jim O’Neil, artistic director of Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company, knows something about keeping one’s balance while reaching for the heights, and his steady hand and ambitious artistic vision are equally on display in this fine new production of the classic musical.
As the Ventura County Star spelled out in a fascinating article, getting the rights to stage Fiddler on the Roof was a drama in itself. Making this large show work in the Rubicon’s intimate theater was no doubt another. The space had to be configured with a newly constructed, modified-thrust stage allowing the actors to perform within inches of members of the audience.
This gives the show a startling feeling of intimacy, drawing us into the characters’ lives. O’Neil makes particularly good use of the space in the wedding scene, in which the ceremony takes place front and center as the other characters look on from a respectful distance in the back. We in the audience become the guests of honor at the ceremony, catching every little nuance as the bride and groom nervously take their vows.
Fiddler ranks in the top tier of Broadway musicals, and this briskly paced staging reminds us why: The score is superb, the characters are richly drawn, and the story is as compelling as it is universal. At its center is Tevye the milkman, who conducts an ongoing conversation with God as if the two have a close, if sometimes fractious, friendship. Like all of us, he just wants some stability, some continuity, and some peace. Like all of us, he finds the world does not offer such comforts.
It’s a great role, and Jay Brazeau’s superb performance manages to be both agreeably big and remarkably nuanced. Earthy, well-meaning, and a bit of a ham, his Tevye is instantly likable and intriguingly complicated. As he displays the conflicted character’s many facets, Brazeau’s voice can shift from an angry growl to a tender purr to a self-deprecating chortle all in a single sentence.
Lauren Patten is the standout of the supporting cast, embodying the intelligence and passion of Tevye’s rebellious daughter Chava. Working around space constraints, Lee Martino effectively reproduces Jerome Robbins’s brilliant choreography, with the dream sequence a particular delight. Virtuoso violinist Nuvi Mehta, artistic director of the Ventura Music Festival, produces sublime sounds in the title role.