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Review | Olney’s ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ revival is mostly a missed opportunity

At the emotional high point of Olney Theatre Center’s largely stiff and wan “Fiddler on the Roof,” a family invites the world to join them at the Sabbath table.

Heading that family is Tevye (Howard Kaye), a Jewish dairyman torn between tradition and change in the tightknit village of Anatevka, in czarist Russia. In director Peter Flynn’s production, a framing device — scenes set at an Ellis Island-like transit center — shows Anatevka to characters representing refugees and migrants from diverse backgrounds. Those weary travelers take on roles in Tevye’s story, and in the number “Sabbath Prayer,” they gather around the family table. Lanterns gleam overhead, adding warmth to the yearning music. For a poignant moment, humanity’s divisions seem to be healed.

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Unfortunately, such grace and resonance are rare in this “Fiddler,” notwithstanding the evergreen appeal of Joseph Stein’s book, Jerry Bock’s music and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. While Kaye (Broadway’s “Miss Saigon”) turns in a performance that is intermittently piquant, if rarely memorable, many scenes feel stilted, and dramatic opportunities are missed.

The problem is not with the smart and vividly realized transit-center conceit. At the show’s start, émigrés in the garb of many cultures mill about in a Kafkaesque waiting room. (Milagros Ponce de León designed the apt set; Pei Lee, the flavorful costumes.) Tevye is here, too, having arrived after antisemitic authorities expelled Jewish residents from Anatevka — a calamity depicted in the original musical. As he reminisces, other refugees help him reenact the story.

A tribute to empathy, the frame story complements the original musical’s themes and should speak stirringly to the contemporary landscape of spiking antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, partisan battles over immigration, racial tensions and conflict in Ukraine (where Anatevka would be located today), Israel, Gaza and elsewhere.

But the frame story needs to operate in tandem with a supple and persuasive conjuring of Anatevka, and this production fails to provide that. Supporting actors sometimes looked to be parked awkwardly on the stage rather than seeming at home there. Dialogue between Tevye and his wife, Golde (Rachel Stern), skews toward shrewish-wife cartoonishness, while the romance between their daughter Tzeitel (Sophie Schulman) and the tailor Motel (an unduly clowning Michael Wood) lacks chemistry.

When the Constable (Russell Rinker) announces the expulsion from Anatevka, the muttering reactions of Tevye’s friends seem stagy, not an expression of genuine shock. Even more exasperating is the Fiddler (Graciela Rey), who spends so much time throughout the show gamboling around, you’d swear she was a headliner at Cirque du Soleil.

On a more positive note, Kaye’s Tevye can be enjoyably spirited when he chats chummily with God or soliloquizes about his five daughters’ rebellious choices, and the actor’s singing voice is strong. Ariana Caldwell is appealingly spunky as daughter Chava, who warms to the non-Jewish Fyedka (Jay Frisby), while Cheryl J. Campo hits comic notes diligently as the matchmaker Yente.

Sumié Yotsukura turns in the show’s most winning performance, as Tevye’s self-possessed daughter Hodel, singing splendidly in the delightful “Matchmaker.” Backing such songs, the offstage orchestra sounds pleasant, if keyboard-heavy. (Christopher Youstra is music director.) All the actors throw themselves gamely — though sometimes effortfully — into the dancing, choreographed by Lorna Ventura with deference to Jerome Robbins’s choreography of the 1964 original production.

But it’s a sign of the cast’s overall difficulty in making everyday Anatevka live and breathe that the most compelling sequence other than “Sabbath Prayer” is “Tevye’s Dream.” Channeling an over-the-top invented nightmare, the actors seem liberated. They are at one with the moment.

Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein; music, Jerry Bock; lyrics, Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Peter Flynn; lighting design, Max Doolittle; sound, Matt Rowe; assistant director, Chess Jakobs. With Naomi Biel, Daphne Wheeler, Olivia Michelle Fegler, Maisie Posner, Noah Keyishian, DeMone Seraphin, Robert Mintz, Sasha Olinick, Dylan Arredondo and others. 2 hours 45 minutes. Tickets: $35-$101. Through Dec. 31 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. 301-924-3400.

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