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Some new tradition in Berkeley Playhouse’s ‘Fiddler’

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Grace Ng plays the town fiddler in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Courtesy Ben Krantz Studio)
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Interestingly, the fiddler is not literally on the roof in Berkeley Playhouse’s production of the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

She – yes, she – walks on a ramp toward the back of the stage in the historic Julia Morgan Theater in this entertaining version of the 1964 hit show, a multiple Tony Award-winner, directed by Jon Tracy.

Tracy’s unusual choices – from the female fiddler to keeping the entire cast onstage, at the side, throughout the show, and more – work, providing a fresh perspective for musical lovers who have seen the warhorse many times.

But they don’t get in the way of tradition, either. This show (by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) about the trials and tribulations of changing traditions set in a Jewish village in early 20th century Russia is as buoyant, and heart wrenching, as ever – from the smashing opening number “Tradition” to its somber ending “Anatevka.”

Sacramento-based Michael RJ Campbell plays Tevye, the poor, charitable dairy man whose daughters have radical ideas about the men they will marry, with an appealing, slightly serious tone, not overly laden with shtick. Sarah Mitchell as his wife Golde struts her comic chops more, yet, with Campbell, strikes perfect notes in the particularly evocative song “Do You Love Me?” that’s more bittersweet than funny.

Abbey Lee, Jade Shojaee and Grace Ng, forceful yet graceful as the daughters who challenge their papa, are particularly good in the strong “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” surprisingly performed with nary a broomstick in sight.

Still, many of “Fiddler’s” conventions happily remain intact. Choreographer Matthew McCoy directs the expert folk dances (complete with kicks, squats and bottles on heads) in the engagement number (the rousing “To Life”) and ill-fated wedding scene. “The Dream” boasts an appropriately scary, big ghost.

Led by Rachel Robinson (also on keyboards), the seven- piece band has a full, lively sound, with a showcase part for violinist Christina Owens.

Like its plaintive fiddle theme, Berkeley Playhouse’s “Fiddler on the Roof” remains unique yet universal, illustrating the joy, and sorrow, of living in a world where families deal with conflicts and change is inevitable.
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REVIEW
Fiddler on the Roof
Presented by Berkeley Playhouse
Where: Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Fridays, 1 and 6 p.m. Saturdays, noon and 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 2, Tickets: $25 to $60
Contact: (510) 845-8542, ext.351, www.berkeleyplayhouse.org

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