New Rep’s ‘Fiddler’ takes you on a magical trip

Tevye (Jeremiah Kissel) leads the ensemble of "Fiddler on the Roof" in "To Life." Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Tevye (Jeremiah Kissel)  and the ensemble of “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN – There is something about the first strains of the violin in the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” that immediately transports you to a faraway time and place.

The musical’s “Tradition” is one of the more wonderful opening numbers in the history of musical theater, as the Jews who reside in the Russian village of Anatevka in the early 20th Century drive a stake in the ground and explain who they are and what they stand for, and the importance of their rituals and customs in their daily lives.

In a world of upheaval, they cling to those customs and rituals as chill winds blow from the east in this musical based on the stories of Sholem Aleichim, as adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein with the timeless score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

The New Repertory Theater has set its production of “Fiddler” as its holiday entry at the Mosesian Theater of the Arsenal Center for the Arts, and indeed it is a fine production – with a few caveats.

The Mosesian Theater – as beautiful a facility as it is – does pose challenges for a large-scale musical. With no orchestra pit, the music is performed backstage and has to be piped back into the theater either over or around the performers, taking away a bit of the immediacy.

On the plus side, the theater’s expansive stage area provides plenty of space for the residents of Anatevka to roam, giving full-scale dance numbers the space to breathe under Kelli Edwards’ choreography (the original choreography was by the incomparable Jerome Robbins).

Edwards takes full advantage in the well-staged production numbers “To Life!” “The Wedding.” and “The Dream.”

It takes a little time to warm to Jeremiah Kissel, whose Tevye is a bit of a wisecracker, for a time lacking the usual warmth of the character in his talks with God, but Kissel slowly makes the part his, with the turning point a stirring rendition of “To Life.” His interaction with his daughters is particularly poignant.

Alongside Tevye much of the time is the fiddler, Dashiel Evett, the son of choreographer Edwards and actor Benjamin Evett, who was young Tom of Warwick in New Rep’s 2013 production of “Camelot.” He is the character who brings us into the piece and becomes a security blanket, perhaps, for Tevye as he suffers bumps and bruises.

Amelia Broome easily handles the acting and singing demands of Tevye’s wife Golde, but you would think that the demands of raising five daughters in a poor family and a demanding husband would have taken more of a toll on her appearance.

Bobbie Steinbach is an excellent fit as the matchmaker Yente. Right? Right.

The three eldest daughters are, in a word, wonderful. Abby Goldfarb is is the oldest, Tzeitel, betrothed to the butcher Lazar Wolf ( David Wohl) until Tzeitel’s pleas melt Tevye’s heart and he schemes to convince Golde that spirits from beyond the grave have threatened mayhem if the two wed.

Sarah Oakes Muirhead is great fun as the spirited Hodel, who spars with her free-thinking teacher Perchik (Ryan Mardesich), who brings “dangerous” thoughts and customs from Kiev – men dancing with women! — that threaten the way the residents live.

And while Tevye bends his beliefs like a pretzel to allow his first two daughters to marry , he can bend no further for Victoria Britt as Chava, who becomes “dead” to her father after abandoning her faith and her people to marry the Russian Fyedka.

The three sisters’ rendition of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is funny and heartfelt and beautifully sung, and you can’t help but think of those loved ones who are far from home during the holiday season when Muirhead as Hodel performs the heartbreaking ballad “Far From The Home I Love” as she prepares to join Perchik in Siberia.

This “Fiddler” was directed by Austin Pendleton, the acclaimed actor/director who played Motel in the original 1964 Broadway cast, and he has apparently imparted some of what he learned from original director Jerome Robbins to Patrick Varner, who inherits the role here. You would expect him to ace the number “Miracle of Miracles” and he does just that, exploding with joy and wonder upon realizing that a poor tailor could find such happiness, and taking us along with him for the ride.

I would have liked to see the Russians – obviously, save for Dan Prior as Fyedka – be a bit more menacing and assertive when the time came for them to have a “demonstration,” hard on the heels of the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel.

There have been several revivals of “Fiddler” on Broadway, the current one ending in just a few weeks, but you don’t have to go to New York to find the joys and travails of Tevye and his brood.

This “Fiddler” will do just fine.

Fiddler on the Roof.” Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, Mainstage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through Jan. 1. Tickets $35-$65, 617-923-8487.

L-R: Abby Goldfarb, Sarah Oakes Muirhead, and Victoria Britt. Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

L-R: Abby Goldfarb, Sarah Oakes Muirhead, and Victoria Britt. Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures