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Harvey Fierstein in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre

Harvey  Fierstein and the company of "Fiddler on the Roof." Photo: Joan Marcus

Harvey Fierstein and the company of "Fiddler on the Roof." Photo: Joan Marcus

Theater review
“Fiddler on the Roof”
Grade: A
8 p.m. Thurs., Mar. 18 – Sat., Mar. 20,2 p.m. Sat., Mar. 20 -Sun., Mar. 21, 7:30 p.m. Sun., Mar 21. $15-$65. Presented by Atlanta Broadway Series. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 1-800-982-2787, www.ticketmaster.com.

By Wendell Brock

You can call him over-the-top. You can say his vocal mannerisms are embellished to the power of 10. You can dismiss him as a cartoon. So be it.

In the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre through Sunday, Harvey Fierstein’s ever-changing tremolos and quicksilver mood swings make his Tevye the milkman a living, breathing, bellowing, whispering curiosity of musical theater lore. In the scenery-chomping tradition of Carol Channing and Ethel Merman, the four-time Tony Award winner gives a deliciously unrestrained and ultimately heartbreaking turn that strips the iconic role of the dirt-poor, daughter-rich Jewish patriarch of all clichés.

Swirling around this monumental performance for the ages is a sure-footed 36-member company of singers, dancers, actors and musicians who transform the barren Russian shtetl of Anatevka into a full-out Broadway epic.

Director-choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes reproduces Jerome Robbins’ original 1964 dances in all their ethnic, bottle-balancing splendor, and scenic designer Steve Gilliam devises a visually arresting tableau of splintered birches and wooden hovels. (Tony Ray Hicks contributes a handsome wardrobe of colorful peasant skirts, somber suits and prayer shawls.)

As czarist Russia and the hint of encroaching political change sweep through Tevye’s village, traditions crumble, and the matchmaking ways of the yentas are trumped by that strangely modern notion called true love. Tevye can cook up a supernatural dream-scheme to keep Tzeitel (the lovely Kaitlin Stilwell) from marrying the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (David Brummel), and he can live with the decision of Hodel (Jamie Davis) to run off with wild-eyed revolutionary Perchik (Colby Foytik). But he can’t abide the impertinence of Chava (Deborah Grausman), who elopes with the gentile Fyedka (Matthew Marks). Will Tevye forgive Chava and bless the marriage?

As the matriarch Golde, Susan Cella has the difficult task of holding her own against Fierstein’s cocky, physically commanding Tevye. She succeeds nicely. As Yente, Mary Stout is a stooped, teapot-shaped babushka with a tentative, seen-it-all walk. She mines her character’s exasperation for all its comedic richness. Hodel and Motel (Zal Owen) are the sweethearts of the story, so excited by the “new arrival” sewing machine that they almost forget their baby. As the Fiddler, Arthur A. Atkinson is a distinctive mime; moments of sadness, joy, anguish and yearning are reflected in the contours of his face and the singing of his strings.

This 2004 revival of the Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick classic runs for three hours but never flags. As Tevye’s family lights the candles for Shabbat dinner, they are framed in a beautiful and evocative image by four families singing the “Sabbath Prayer,” and when Tevye sings “Chavaleh,” the dancers glide in and out of the sequence as gracefully as swans.

In his long and illustrious career, Fierstein has played lovelorn drag queens (“Torch Song Trilogy”) and big-hearted Baltimore mamas (“Hairspray”). If there are glimmers of camp in his Tevye, that only adds to the layers of his lovable and compassionate papa. It’s a smart, surprising, intellectually vigorous and seriously funny performance.

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