"Fiddler on the Roof" may not be as young as it used to be. The ending is not exactly what you would call happy, and it's playing at the Warner, which could use perhaps a coat of paint, but look -- what's perfect?
If it's not perfect, this show comes close. It has the true mark of classic, which is that it improves with age. If you consider the dramatic values with the musical and factor in its sweeping thematic scope, it has a rate favorably against quite a few operas in the standard repertoire, and it is possibly the most joyful and melodious stage work ever produced about a universe disintegrating around the ears of people who don't quite understand what is happening.
The new production at the Warner is not quite perfect, but it's a very strong one -- stronger, for example, than the one that ran at the Kennedy Center a few years ago with the late Zero Mostel playing Tevye. This time around, the cast is headed by Herschel Bernardi, the definitive Tevye, a man born for this role, beautifully seasoned in it by now and yet never for a minute inclined to take it for granted or fall into rountine. He is supported by and superbly integrated into a cast that includes an equally definitive Yenta in Ruth Jaroslow, a fine Golde in Rhoda Gemignani (who is a superb actress if only a not bad singer), and well-developed performances by Paul Lipson (Lazar the butcher) Michelan Sisti (Motel the tailor) and Hope Katcher, Donalyn Petrucci and Liz Larsen (the three oldest daughters).
The tunes are as fine as ever, the voices generally good and well-blended, the dancing both colorful and poignantly expressive, the staging simple and flexible -- with sets and backdrops reminiscent of Chagall, as they should be. A lot of the secondary elements will be as familiar as the old jokes (like the argument about the horse or mule and the rabbi's blessing for the czar) to those who have seen another of this show's many productions. I can't recall how many times, in how many productions, I have seen the shabby exterior of Tevye's shack unfold into a cozy, candle-lit interior for the Sabbath evening scene, for example -- but it works as well this time, as it has on so many previous occasions.
The most important point about this production, as compared to the Mostel vehicle of a few seasons ago, it is integration. Mostel tried to make it a one-man show, a feat of which he was certainly capable but one that damaged the balance of the production seriously. Bernardi is a team player -- often dominant, as the script demands, but never taking so much of the spotlight that he hurts the total effect or robs his colleagues of the attention they have earned. This restraint shows clearly even when he is alone on stage, as in his big solo, "If I Were a Rich Man." His current interpretation starts off very low-key, somewhere between talking and singing, so that the audience is hardly aware of where the lead-in ends and the song begins. It is a much more natural and dramatically effective approach than a flashy opening, and it builds the song gradually and effectively to a strong, natural climax.
This one number is a fair sample of the whole production -- beautifully proportioned, carefully thought-out and artfully played and directed with a strong sense of total effect. It is a production worthy of this masterpiece.