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FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

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The current Broadway revival of this beloved 1964 musical has been called everything from too somber to insufficiently Jewish. How does one introduce fresh nuances into this classic without losing its simple yet powerful virtues? In director Carey Curtis Smith's by-the-book staging, it's not audacious directorial choices that upset the milkman's cart. It's uneven execution.

Pauline Kael aptly praised Norman Jewison's film version for its operatic power. The key to successfully tapping into the mythic resonance of Joseph Stein's book and the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock score is in allowing the timeless themes of familial bonding and cultural pride to shine through. This is a slice-of-life ethnic drama, peppered with flavorsome songs and dances. By regularly spilling the action into the aisles, as harsh house lights flash into our faces and actors mingle among us, Smith distracts from the dramatic flow rather than enhancing it. This annoying device is the production's biggest faux pas. Running a close second is the tepid choreography, which is attributed to Sofia Carreras, Rita Chenoweth, Jo Dierdorff, and Mark Haines. Too many cooks possibly spoiled this broth, as the big dance numbers land with a thud and the usually breathtaking "Chavaleh" ballet is treated as a throwaway token.

The lead performers are generally commendable, though Ciro Barbaro as Tevye, the patriarch with a bark worse than his bite, is too low-key. His first number, "If I Were a Rich Man," sends notice that he lacks the charisma to inhabit this larger-than-life Everyman. He partially redeems himself in the poignant second-act scenes. Debbie Prutsman excels as his feisty wife, Golde, and the actors playing the three daughters and their suitors likewise score solidly. The finest performance is a dual effort: Jennifer Bryce's dead-on characterization as Yente the matchmaker and her exquisite turn as the dream-sequence Grandma Tzeitel.

Design elements are impressive: Brian Sandahl's sprawling scenic design, costumes from Costumes Galore and Caron James, and Daniel Volonte's lighting. Conductor and music director Allen Everman serves the rousing score effectively. This isn't the best Fiddler to come down the pike; nor the worst. Tradition isn't obliterated; it just feels a bit tarnished.

"Fiddler on the Roof," presented by Performance Riverside at Landis Performing Arts Center, 4800 Magnolia Ave., Riverside. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 4-20. $25-33. (951) 222-8100.

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