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THEATER REVIEW : Century-Old Stories Come to Life in 'Fiddler on the Roof' : Based on life among rural Jews in pre- revolutionary Russia, the tales have a universal appeal in Ojai production.


If half the population of Ojai is on stage for the current Arts Center Theater production of "Fiddler on the Roof"--as it seems to be--then the other half is in the audience: Several shows were sold out before the first performance. The number of capacity audiences should increase as word of mouth spreads; this is an ambitious production with much to recommend it.

Stories from Sholom Aleichem's 1894 "Tevye's Daughters" served as the inspiration for Joseph Stein's script, with music and lyrics by the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Based on life among rural Jews in pre-revolution Russia, Aleichem's stories prove to be much more universal. And of course "Fiddler," which celebrated its 30th birthday in September, included the hit songs "Sunrise, Sunset" and "If I Were a Rich Man."

Tevye, the village milkman, is the father of several girls, three of whom are of marriageable age. But times are changing, and eldest daughter Tzeitel refuses to participate in the traditional match he arranges with butcher Lazar Wolfe, who's prosperous but several years her senior. Instead, she's fallen in love with her childhood friend, Motel, a poor but otherwise worthy tailor. Oy, veh!

Perchick, a revolutionary firebrand student from the big city of Kiev, eventually wins the affection of second daughter Hodel, and third daughter Chava . . . well, we won't give everything away here, other than to note that Tevye and his wife, Golde, are not thrilled by Chava's choice, either. In the meantime, Russian soldiers are moving closer in another of the government's efforts to eliminate Jews from the country--not only is "Fiddler" universal, it's timeless.

Director Evelyn Raft, also responsible for the Arts Center's fondly remembered version of "Cabaret" a few years ago, has again surrounded herself with capable hands, on stage and backstage. Gabriel de la Vega is literally larger than life as Tevye, commanding the stage whenever he's on it--which is most of the time.

Mandy Myers, Brittany Adams and Rachel Atkins portray Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, with George M. Lemire as Motel, the tailor; Patrick Murphy as Perchick, the revolutionary; and David Douglas as Chava's intended, Fyedka. Debra Massarella plays Golde, and there's a strong comic turn by Marianne Johnston as a spirit who appears to Tevye, he says, in a dream.

Massarella choreographed, along with Trudy and Peter Israel, both alumni of the Aman Folk Ensemble. Musical director Betsy Goodspeed heads perhaps the sharpest pit band seen in Ventura County in some time, and some of the choral singing is quite inspiring (vocal coaches: Heidi Goodspeed and Diane El-Shafey). Elmer Bladow has designed an ambitious set.

Somehow, director Raft gets as many as 33 cast members on stage simultaneously, which is probably a dozen more than fit comfortably on the relatively small stage, and too often the bystanders seem unsure of what they should be doing.

At one point, a frustrated Tevye asks his fellow villagers, "Why are you all standing around like a bunch of goats?" It's a question that Raft might have asked during some of those more static passages.


* WHAT: "Fiddler on the Roof."

* WHEN: Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. through Nov. 26. Also 2 p.m. Nov. 13, 20.

* WHERE: Ojai Arts Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai.

* COST: $12 general admission; $10.50 for seniors (62 and older) and children under 12.

* FYI: Reservations or further information: 646-0117 or 964-3688.

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