'Fiddler On the Roof'

Grandma Tzeitel (Cheryl Stern), comes back from the dead to tell Tevye, (Adam Heller), of the proper match for his daughter in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. (Daniel Owen, Special To The Courant / July 18, 2014)

The show: "Fiddler on the Roof" at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.

What makes it special?: The 50th anniversary since the show opened on Broadway in 1964.

First impressions: What's not to like? It's one of Goodspeed's finest and most intimate productions, treating the show not as an institutionalized classic but, miracle of miracles, rather as a vital and human story of family, faith and a simple man's struggle with a fast-changing world. Director Rob Ruggiero stages the well-integrated production with grace, warmth and surety, bringing out the best in story, song and especially the perfectly measured performance of Adam Heller as Tevye.

What's it about?: After countless Broadway, regional, school and community productions — not to mention a hit film — you need to ask? It's about a poor Jewish milkman in pre-Revolution Russia and his five daughters, three of which are of marriage age — and the characters of the tiny village in 1905. But more than that it's about tradition and the challenges to those older ways. Actually that's the challenge with any production. How do you make this familiar and revered tale, characters and songs seem fresh.

And the answer?: By making it real, by artful balance, by understanding and trusting that the power of Sholem Aleichem stories comes from its gentle heart and its quiet spirit, by embracing in true ways its joys, humor and heartbreak, It's tricky because if you underplay, a lot of the Broadway craft doesn't pop, especially in vibrant numbers such as "If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition" and "To Life." But if you push too hard, it becomes sentimental goo and comic schtick.

But the beauty of the intimate Goodspeed stage is that you can dare to get more personal and private without having to play to an audience far, far away. But this tightened scope also has its de facto limits.

Such as?: It's difficult to really capture the sense of place. It takes a village to recreate the hamlet of Anatevka and on the small Goodspeed stage that sense of community comes and goes, quite literally in this large-cast production. The pretty white birch trees make the setting of Michael Schweikardt feel more like Chekhov than Chagall. And the fiddler is on a tiny roof out of sight from much of the audience. And when the villagers sing about their town at show's end, you have the feeling that, other than the people, there was no there there.

The cast?: Terrific. All, starting with Heller. I've admired this actor in many productions over the years but here he has found a role in which he can triumph, bringing in all the shadings of a conflicted-yet-loving husband, father, neighbor and man of deep faith. Funny, endearing, and strong, it's a masterful performance on a human scale and a perfect fit for the Goodspeed.

Lori Wilner is a perfect match as his tough and tender wife, Golde, and their number together "Do You Love Me?" is a low-key delight. Cheryl Stern gets the laughs naturally as Yente, the matchmaker. The oldest daughters — Barrie Kreinik, Jen Brissman and Elizabeth DeRosa — are splendid and beautifully voiced. Suitors David Perlman, Abdiel Vivancos, Timothy Hassler are all solid as is John Payonk as a Falstaffian Lazar Wolf and strong-voiced Joy Hermalyn make for a formidable Fruma Sarah. Jeremy Lawrence is a great minimalist as the rabbi. The entire ensemble also has detailed specificity and blends seamlessly into the whole.

Watching the show in such a sublime production also allows one to step back and admire the craftsmanship of Joseph Stein's deft script and the marvelous music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, overseen by Jerome Robbins, whose choreography is well represented here by Parker Esse.

Who will like it: Jews. Gentiles. Most anyone who has daughters, a family or a cross to bear.

Who won't?: The czar.

For the kids?: Youngsters will identify with the storyline about children defying their parents.

Twitter review in 140 charters or less: A treasured musical lovingly presented; the tradition continues. Watching the show in such a sublime production allows one to step back and admire the craftsmanship of Joseph Stein's deft script and the marvelous music and lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, overseen by Jerome Robbins, whose choreography is well represented here by Parker Esse.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Fifty years and the musical is still going strong. The same can be said of Goodspeed. Stepping outside the theater at show's end, one can't help but relate to the balancing act between tradition and change not only in long-ago Russia but in East Haddam, too. L'chaim.

The basics: "Fiddler on the Roof'' runs through Sept. 12. Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2; and some 6:30 p.m. shows through July 27. There are additional matinees on Tuesdays, July 29, Aug. 12 and Aug. 26 at 2 p.m. Additional shows have been added on Sept. 9 and 10 at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 11 at 2 p.m.; and Sept. 12 at 2 and 8 p.m. Information: www.goodspeed.org and 860-873-8668.

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