Set in a Russian Jewish village in 1905, this story of Tevye the milkman, his wife, and five daughters is one of those miraculous pieces of classic theater. Without ever growing corny or cloying, it inspires waves of old-fashioned feelings about family, faith, community, and -- as the opening song famously proclaims -- tradition. As this revival proves, Fiddler is one musical with a tremendously resilient, supersize heart.
British director David Leveaux, who last season brought off a sleekly seductive Nine with Antonio Banderas, does handsome and intelligent work throughout. He makes brilliant use of a dauntingly huge stage, conceiving it as a sprawling folktale forest, complete with shadowy trees, hanging lanterns, and a starlit sky. And though Leveaux dials down the shtick we expect from the 40-year-old show (exaggerated gestures, broad characterizations), he essentially leaves most of the Fiddler elements in place, including Jerome Robbins' demanding original 1964 choreography. Joseph Stein's book proves extremely relevant in its focus on the glories and limitations of custom -- all of which reach an intense breaking point when Tevye's middle daughter dares to marry a gentile. The dialogue remains fresh and witty, as does the sprightly, melodic score by the massively underrated team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (whose twin odes to Manhattan, Fiorello! and Tenderloin, also deserve revival).
Still, despite the fact that this production engages us, something is missing -- and that's the proper Tevye. Alfred Molina is a fine actor, but he seldom surrenders himself to the material. During what should be Tevye's shining moment -- the exuberant ''If I Were a Rich Man'' -- Molina doesn't dance so much as lumber. He captures his character's humility, but not his earthy grandness. (Unfairly perhaps, he has to stand beside the legend of the original Tevye, Zero Mostel.) Fiddler remains a poignant experience. But without a towering Tevye, it lacks that counterbalancing sense of joyful release.