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Theater Review

Tone it down, Tevye

The dynamic Topol indulges in some Mostel-like gimmicks in his

July 25, 2009|F. Kathleen Foley

There is theater, and there is history. The twain meets at the Pantages Theatre, where "Fiddler on the Roof," starring Topol, commences a 2 1/2 -week run as part of Topol's farewell tour. It's an undeniably historical occasion, an opportunity to see a living legend, now 73, reprise the role that he has played for more than 2,500 performances.

First produced on Broadway in 1964, "Fiddler" features Jerry Bock's music, Sheldon Harnick's lyrics and Joseph Stein's book, based on the humorous folk stories of Sholem Aleichem. Topol, of course, plays Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman eking out a meager living in a remote Russian village, circa 1905. After playing the role on London's West End in the late 1960s, Topol vaulted to international celebrity when he was cast in Norman Jewison's 1971 film, which earned him an Oscar nomination.

Jewison rattled nerves when he chose Topol over Zero Mostel, who famously originated the role. Jewison feared that Mostel's mugging would keep the audience at an emotional distance, whereas Topol's virile naturalism would be more suited to film.

That virile presence is still intact at the Pantages, where a rapturous opening-night audience hung on Topol's every word -- and also on the very pregnant pauses in between. Topol remains a physically dynamic performer with a gorgeous baritone, full of gravel and rich coloration.

Yet ironically, he has succumbed to some of the very gimmicks that plagued his predecessor. In a performance that is an odd amalgam of the cinematically muted and the theatrically arch, this milkman milks every possible moment of his role, sometimes overmuch. One suspects that his director, Sammy Dallas Bayes, who also reproduces Jerome Robbins' original choreography for the production, was loath to suggest that his star should pick up the pace or tamp down his mischievous mannerisms.

Sadly, Bayes never settles on a consistent tone, encouraging some actors to give over-the-top turns that are simply gratuitous, while other performers are so downplayed they almost disappear.

There are shining exceptions. Tevye's three daughters, Tzeitel (Rena Strober), Hodel (Jamie Davis) and Chava (Deborah Grausman), are all charming and refreshingly low-key. Erik Liberman is amusingly timid as Motel, the poor tailor who wins Tzeitel's hand. As Golde, Tevye's lovingly shrewish wife, the talented Susan Cella is well-cast but sometimes the victim of misdirection, as at the end of the dream sequence, which leaves her screaming and spinning like a top -- a bafflingly artificial moment that undermines her character's veracity.

Other attempts at innovation backfire, most notably in that ghostly dream sequence, which plays more like commedia than nightmare. Fortunately, David Andrews Rogers' capable music direction and wonderful dance sequences (Ken Daigle is also credited as choreographer) largely compensate for the misfires, and the cast settles into a more realistic context in time for the doleful events of Act 2.

As for Topol, despite a few too many ticks and pauses, he remains an amazingly durable and charismatic Tevye whose performance is one for the books. Warts and all, it should be seen.

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'Fiddler on the Roof'

Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Aug. 9

Price: $20 to $75

Contact: (800) 982-2787

Running time: 3 hours

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