Expectant applause greets the first, familiar strains of "Tradition." Many in the audience know the song by heart, as well as Tevye the milkman's coming pronouncement: "Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof."
Few songs speak quite so directly to humankind's yearning for stability, so the song's return, in a show that is itself a tradition, is particularly welcome in these troubled times.
That show is "Fiddler on the Roof," which is passing through Los Angeles in a touring production that essentially re-creates the original 1964 Broadway staging and features one of the world's most familiar Tevyes: Theodore Bikel.
It plays at the Wilshire Theatre through Jan. 27.
A couple of less-than-perfect singing voices aside, this is a well-cast production. And although a few uncertain or uninspired moments make the enterprise seem frayed about the edges, the show is otherwise solidly staged, delivering warmth and comfort in all the expected places.
Even the old-fashioned stagecraft--with the performers pushing Tevye's ramshackle house into place on rollers--is a refreshing throwback to the days before the dehumanized slickness of computer controls.
Based on stories by Sholom Aleichem, "Fiddler"--with a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick--tells the story of a Russian village shaken by change in 1905, as pogroms send Jewish residents fleeing for their lives. The story's Everyman is the hard-working Tevye, who talks with God as though they were two old friends walking the streets together, and whose earthly treasures are his no-nonsense wife and his five radiant daughters.
Change begins at home for Tevye as, one by one, his daughters find a way around traditional arranged marriages. The "Tradition" melody tries to reassert itself each time, but there's no avoiding the inevitable.
Bikel, who has logged more than 1,800 performances as Tevye, brings nice shadings to the role. True, he is too old-looking for the part, with his snowy-white hair and beard. And, now that he's in his late 70s, he moves a bit stiffly. Yet his deep, rich voice projects each song like cantorial prayer, and he infuses Tevye with just the right balance of reverence and Borscht Belt humor.
The daughters who upend his life are also well cast, with Eileen Tepper, Sara Schmidt and Rachel Jones each bringing vitality and a sweet, fluttering singing voice to the respective roles of Tzeitel, Chava and Hodel. The diminutive Maureen Silliman lends a lean efficiency to Golde, Tevye's good-natured sparring partner of a wife, although her singing isn't as flexible or as evocative as her acting.
Still, it's impossible to stanch the flow of tears when she and Bikel sing "Sunrise, Sunset" at Tzeitel's wedding--part of a finely detailed staging re-created by Sammy Dallas Bayes, who has long been associated with "Fiddler."
Evoking Jewish folk melodies, the songs--particularly "If I Were a Rich Man," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "Sabbath Prayer," "To Life" and the heartbreaking "Far From the Home I Love"--pulse with the resiliency that has sustained a culture through many hard times.
But above all, the show is guided by humankind's truest compass. "It's a new world," Tevye says to his wife. "A new world. Love."
"Fiddler on the Roof," Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Jan. 27. $47-$67. (213) 365-3500 or www.ticketmaster.com. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.