"Twenty-eight?!" my friend exclaimed, after I told her the size of the cast for Portland Center Stage's Fiddler on the Roof, the largest the company has ever corralled. "There aren't even that many Jews in Portland!" (Give her a break: She's a Jew from Long Island. And for the record, there are close to 50,000 Jews in Portland.)
But I took her point. Despite our recent bagel boom, this isn't exactly a city teeming with yarmulke-clad, kosher-keeping denizens. How would PCS artistic director Chris Coleman—himself a goy from Atlanta—treat this portrait of life in a Jewish shtetl in pre-revolutionary Russia? Known for bold directorial choices, including casting an all-black Oklahoma! two seasons ago, would Coleman turn the classic musical into an allegory for Syria? For Israel-Palestine? For the embattled Right 2 Dream Too homeless encampment?
The answer, mercifully, is no. It's easy to make contemporary analogies for Fiddler, which centers on Tevye, a tradition-bound milkman facing the forces of modernity and malice. But what makes this production work is its refusal to generalize or to draw sweeping parallels. Coleman has made it idiosyncratic and personal, bringing texture to a broad tale.
As Tevye, David Studwell plays a man weary but resilient, buoyed by a dark and idiosyncratically Jewish sense of humor. ("Good news will stay and bad news will refuse to leave," he says.) His self-searching conversations with God, deftly accompanied by subtle lighting cues, become humorous asides to the audience. Faced with three daughters who each seek to marry men he deems unsuitable—or at least less than ideal—Tevye strains to balance devoutness and dismay, which Studwell sympathetically conveys with slight shifts in his gait and bearing.
The other cast members—all speaking in distinctive Russian-Jewish accents, one of the things that gives the production such satisfying specificity—also bring nuance to broadly drawn characters. As the revolutionary student who's learned racy dances in Kiev, Zachary Prince is lively and impetuous. Merideth Kaye Clark, as Tevye's oldest daughter, delivers a fantastically screechy impersonation of nosy matchmaker Yenta. And as Yenta herself, the always hilarious Sharonlee McLean (whose accent seems to have taken the subway through Queens) steals scenes with her bowlegged bounce and comic bombast. McLean comes closest to smothering the tone of longing that imbues Fiddler, but for the most part the show walks a fine and careful line: It's neither weepily mournful nor parodically ridiculous.
Tevye may not be a rich man—and Studwell's rendition of that song is a little snoozy—but there's no doubt about the budget behind this show (in the dream scene, an ensemble member rolls onstage atop a soaring tower, looking like a Lady Gaga-esque apparition in a long white dress). Yet the choices fit both Fiddler and Portland: The floor-to-ceiling backdrop of reclaimed wood would be at home in any farm-to-cone ice cream parlor serving noodle-kugel sorbet. The wood chips on the floor, which go flying during the peppy dance sequences, are another nice touch. The orchestra, meanwhile, has been pared down to nine musicians, giving the songs a feel more barn than Broadway, in a good way.
Fiddler may lack the subversion of a Sondheim musical, the humor of Spamalot or the swooning emotionality of West Side Story. But it's hard to deny its warm and homespun allure, which tugs on our desire for nostalgia while warning us of the dangers of insularity. L'chaim!
SEE IT: Fiddler on the Roof is at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays and noon Thursdays through Oct. 27. $38-$72.