There comes a moment late in Act Two when Tevye, the beleaguered dairyman at the center of Fiddler on the Roof, remembers his daughters in childhood and laments the loss of his beloved "Chavaleh" to marriage to a gentile, which completely encapsulates the joy and the sadness that permeates this classic work of the musical theater. Derek Whittaker, playing the role of a lifetime as he leads the cast of Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre's new production of the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein musical, is at his best in this scene, artfully blending his finely honed comic sensibilities with a genuine pathos that creates a heart-tugging moment that is genuinely effective.
Directed by Martha Wilkinson with graceful ease and a very real sense of time and place, of warmly realized nostalgia mixed with theatrical flair and performance flourish, it's one of the most affecting productions of the musical-based upon the writings of Yiddish memoirist and humorist Sholem Aleichem-you could ever hope to see. Wilkinson, Chaffin's Barn's artistic director and Nashville's best known musical theater performer, brings her practiced eye as a director and her focused skill as an actor together to craft a production that lifts the heart with its gentle grace and belly-laugh-inducing humor. Then, turning on a dime, you find yourself catching your breath at the poignancy of the story of these simple villagers in 1905 Anatevka, a Russian hamlet where times are difficult, the Tsar exerts his influence from across the vast expanse of the country and the people eke out a meager existence leavened with humor and huge amounts of love.
Debuting on Broadway in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof won nine of the 10 Tony Awards for which it was nominated and it became the first musical theatre production to run for more than 3,000 performances, claiming the top spot among Broadway's longest-running shows for 10 years (until it was overtaken by Grease).
It still ranks among the Top 15 Longest Running Musicals and it's easy to see why. But think about it: How hard must it have been to convince producers that the first musical theater work to focus on the lives of Jews in Eastern Europe could be a surefire success? It very nearly boggles the mind-some 50 years out from that initial meeting that led to the musical's justifiably appropriate place in the canon of the very best of American musical theater. To have considered Fiddler on the Roof as a musical must have been quite the illogical conundrum before it became the staggering hit and musical theater standard that it is today.
Wilkinson and her creative collective-which includes musical director Jaclyn Lisenby Brown, choreographer Holly Shepherd, costume and wig designer Hannah Schmidt, lighting designer Katie Gant and producer John Chaffin-have cobbled together a winning production, one that pays homage to the show's literary and musical heritage without being slavishly reverent. Together, they breathe new life and vigor into the warhorse of a show, telling the story of Tevye, his long-suffering wife Golde, their five daughters, their suitors and the villagers of Anatevka with a confidence borne of the company's years of experience and the creative focus of the team.
Wilkinson's 20-member cast includes a handful of Barn veterans joined by a bevy of newcomers who now become part of the venerable theater's tradition of training young actors and sending them out into the world to do their artistic thing, continuing the thread of community that pervades theater wherever in the world you might see it performed. It's like a richly woven tapestry: The 2012 version of Fiddler on the Roof is wonderfully entertaining and rather entrancing, but you can't help but remember earlier productions of the musical that starred such Barn luminaries as Michael Edwards, Lari White, Mark Delabarre, Chris Harrod and Wilkinson herself (I confess, however, that my memories of Tennessee Rep's Fiddler on the Roof might be intruding, mixing up the casts in my mind) amid the scores of actors who have trod the boards of that magical, levitating stage where so many theatrical memories have been made since 1967.