Everything old is new again in Santa Barbara. The old Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera has taken on a new name and a new focus as Music Theater of Santa Barbara (MTSB) and presents its last big ensemble show of the season, the tried-and-true Fiddler on the Roof. Jim Alexander directs a diversified group of Broadway veterans, professional dancers, and local actors in a light-hearted look at the struggles of Tevye the Dairyman as he grapples with changing traditions and a regime that disdains the very existence of Teyve's people and culture. Is it troubling that MTSB's take on the classical poignancy of Joseph Stein's book, Jerry Bock's score, and Sheldon Harnick's lyrics glosses over moral outrage in favor of an extra laugh or two from the audience? When Tevye is called a Jewish dog, why do audience members laugh? They laugh because Alexander has taken the easy way out, making quick pacing more important than the exploration of theme.
Despite Alexander's missed opportunity to present multilayered characterizations, Lenny Wolpe's Tevye delights with his total absorption of the portion allotted him. Wolpe's ease with his space, surroundings, and fellow cast members makes his performance one to savor. Scott Dreier's Motel and Jim Raposa's Perchik grow over the course of the production from caricatures to passionate young men, while Cheri Steinkellner returns to the stage after a 15-year absence with her very satisfying turn as Yente.
The ensemble players put their hearts into their work, and if it seems some of them can either sing or dance, but not both, we mostly don't mind. Their abandon of self to their roles is well appreciated, especially in the heartwarmingly sincere "The Sabbath Prayer." On the night reviewed, however, the obviously talented (and presumably well-trained) featured male dancers presented sloppy, careless performances.
If Elise Unruh's excellent musicians are relentlessly directed toward the light-hearted, David Neville's lighting design intrigues, becoming an essential player in the action of this production. The set and costume design are uncredited, but both elements please the eye, while the mystical sound gremlins stalking the Granada once again mar the sound (designed by John Feinstein).
"Fiddler on the Roof," presented by Music Theatre of Santa Barbara at the Granada Theatre, 1216 State St., Santa Barbara. May 2-20 $10-45. (805) 966-2324 or (800) 366-6064.