He may still be a few hundred performances shy of his character's most prolific performer, but it's delightfully obvious that John Preece knows Tevye the milkman as intimately as Tevye knows his God.
Only a few scattered seats were empty Tuesday night at the Orpheum Theater, where Preece, who last headlined “Fiddler on the Roof” in Omaha in 2005, opened a six-day run in the midst of his 10th national tour in the immortal Broadway musical.
Ably backed by an outstanding cast, Preece puts his own definitive stamp on one of the musical theater's most beloved roles — though one can clearly perceive his respect for Zero Mostel, Broadway's original Tevye, as well as Topol, who originated the role on the London stage and set the role's permanent standard in the 1971 movie.
When he finally retired from the role in 2009, Topol had some 2,500 performances as Tevye to his credit. Preece, with nearly 1,800 appearances of his own, separates himself from the Israeli-born actor with a slightly more humorous approach to the script's funniest lines and a softer, less restrained depiction of Tevye's emotions as the outside world invades and finally conquers his corner of 1905 Russia.
As Tevye explains the purpose of the Jewish prayer shawl early in “Tradition,” Preece drew laughter with a pregnant pause before answering, “How did this tradition get started?” with “I don't know.” But when third daughter Chava (Chelsey LeBel) declares her intention to marry the Christian Fyedka (Michael Shultz), Preece objects with a desperate anguish that remains consistent whenever her choice confronts him.
The other leading cast members likewise approach their roles with the confidence to avoid spot-on imitations of their predecessors on film. Andrew Boza, for example, takes Motel the tailor to new levels of geekiness as he initially shrinks from asking Tevye's permission to marry Tzeitel (Brooke Hills). But that merely heightens the moment when Motel forcefully discovers his own maturity: “Even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness!”
Joshua Phan-Gruber's performance as Perchik, meanwhile, offers a reminder of the shortcomings of even the best Broadway film adaptations. He sings “Now I Have Everything,” omitted from the movie, in a way that proves that Perchik isn't completely clueless in expressing his feelings for Hodel (Sarah Sesler). The movie also eliminated a second-act speech more clearly linking Perchik's student activism to the spreading anti-Semitism in late czarist Russia.
Gerri Weagraff's Golde seems a bit less the shrew than small-screen audiences may be used to. But her character's Type A qualities had the audience roaring as she tries to get Tevye to meet Lazar Wolf (David B. Springstead Sr.) for the latter's proposal to Tzeitel. “Will you talk to him?” she says surprisingly sweetly before immediately letting Tevye have it: “WILL YOU TALK TO HIM?”
The vocal performances will disappoint few who attend “Fiddler” this week, though the chorus' staccato delivery of “Anatevka” eroded the song's mournful quality. As the show opens, however, the cast delivers “Tradition” with a powerful punch and crystal-clear diction that immediately captures the audience's attention.
Director Sammy Dallas Bayes reproduces Broadway legend Jerome Robbins' original choreography in this touring version.
How well does the cast perform the famous “bottle dance” at Tzeitel and Motel's wedding? The roar from the audience at its climax told it all. Spend a night in Anatevka this week if you can.