Jewish villagers facing religious discrimination in Czarist Russia in 1905 provide "Fiddler on the Roof" with very serious subject matter for a Broadway musical, but these villagers possess a sharp sense of humor that helps them carry their burdens. They also know how to carry a tune.
Those are the showbiz ingredients that have made "Fiddler" one of the most enduringly popular shows. Its popularity is being reinforced yet again in a confidently staged production at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia. Other than for a couple of obviously pasted-on beards, this is a convincing evocation of an Old World village that's threatened by religious persecution.
Co-directed and choreographed by Tina DeSimone and David James, this staging makes the most of its relatively compact stage. The more than 20 actors inhabiting the remote village of Anatevka sing, dance and argue at close quarters, but their stage movement rarely seems cramped.
A few scenes cleverly have the action on the stage floor complemented by smaller groups engaged in similar activity on three elevated platforms along the side walls; and a fourth platform becomes a nice perch for The Fiddler (Ray Hatch) to oversee this tradition-ruled place.
If that symbolically conceived Fiddler moves with ease from his roof-evocative platform to occasional graceful turns around the stage floor, the show's main character, Tevye, is very much bound to the earth. A stocky milkman who pulls his cart along as if it represented all the weight of his world, Tevye frequently pauses to offer bits of homespun philosophy. His scolding wife and five daughters prompt many of his musings, as do his gossip-spreading neighbors.
As Tevye, David Bosley-Reynolds has the requisite bulk for a role that involves pulling that wood cart all over town. He's equally solid with his singing in such memorable numbers as "If I Were a Rich Man." His greatest virtue as a performer here is the timing he brings to delivering his many comic lines.
If Bosley-Reynolds does not bring as much dramatic gravity to the role as others have in the past, there's fortunately just enough emotional heft in his performance to make Tevye's plight come across.
This actor's comic skills are nicely matched by those of Jane C. Boyle as Tevye's wife, Golde, whose boisterous complaining barely conceals the devotion she has for him. Their duet on "Do You Love Me?" is like a vaudeville routine with a lot of heart.
Their daughters Tzeitel (Tina Marie DeSimone), Hodel (Debra Buonaccorsi), Chava (Katie Heidbreder), Shprintze (Arielle Gordon) and Bielka (Amanda Kaplan) are starting to think about marriage, so Tevye and Golde are in a perpetual state of parental nervousness.
One of the highlights of this production is when all of the daughters vocally join together to sing "Matchmaker, Matchmaker." Here and throughout the show, musical director Douglas Lawler oversees beautifully coordinated singing.
The actors playing these young women all have their share of sweet individual moments, but the one performer who consistently stands out is DeSimone. Although this actor frankly is a tad mature to be playing Tzeitel, she gives such an emotionally rich performance that it pushes aside distracting thoughts about how young Tevye and Golde must have been when they had her.
DeSimone's face registers such heart-tugging emotion during a crucial scene in the second act that it demonstrates just how powerful "Fiddler on the Roof" can be. The Toby's production otherwise generally falls short of its full emotional potential, but there are strong scenes along the way.
Among the large supporting cast, some who make an impression are David James as Motel, Shawn Kettering as Perchick and Susan Porter as Yente. They and others in the cast bring out their characters' quirks so incisively that you really feel like you've gotten to know everybody in town.
When the entire company collectively sings numbers including "Tradition," they make you feel as if you're witnessing village life in early-20th-century Russia. It's a tribute to this production that the newest village in Columbia is the old village of Anatevka.
"Fiddler on the Roof" runs through April 28 at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to http://www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.