The real revolutionary in new revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" isn't feisty little Perchik, the firebrand sent off to Siberia. It's Alfred Molina's sad-eyed, soft-spoken Tevye, a modest, human presence trying to fend off both the czar's minions and the ghosts of Broadway legends past in David Leveaux's somber but eloquent new production.

The real revolutionary in Broadway’s new revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” isn’t feisty little Perchik, the firebrand sent off to Siberia. It’s Alfred Molina’s sad-eyed, soft-spoken Tevye, a modest, human presence trying to fend off both the czar’s minions and the ghosts of Broadway legends past in David Leveaux’s somber but eloquent new production.

It takes courage to tinker with a musical as beloved as “Fiddler on the Roof.” A robust success (3,000-plus performances for the original production, frequent revivals, dinner theater ’til you could plotz), the show was an unlikely proposition, and it remains a delicately calibrated mixture of light and dark.

It’s mind-boggling to imagine the nervous huddlings of its creators: “What do we do for an act-one finale?” “I’ve got it! A pogrom!” Playing it safe, previous Broadway revivals have been facsimiles of the original, which sugarcoated the gloomy realities of turn-of-the-century shtetl life in Russia with doses of musical-comedy merriment.

Leveaux and his collaborators have chosen to downplay the musical’s more broad comedy, accenting naturalism and the gentle story at its core, of tradition evolving and adapting and individuals rebelling against repressive cultural dictates. Of course, Sholom Aleichem wasn’t the only Russian writer concerned with the struggle for self-fulfillment and insular societies on the brink of change. Those are notable themes in Chekhov’s plays, too, and Leveaux has clearly looked to the Russian master for inspiration here.

The Chekhovian mood is established at the outset by Tom Pye’s handsome, wintry set design, which surrounds a worn wooden central playing space with a stand of denuded birch trees, their leaves forming a multicolored carpet. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting rarely strays from the gas-lit hues established in the early scenes — sunshine is a rarity here.

This spare design accentuates the vulnerability of the shtetl dwellers — rough-hewn furniture and a dilapidated ceiling that descends for indoor scenes are the only real set pieces. As the musical progresses, our sense of the characters’ exposure only grows: The scrims surrounding the stage are drawn back in the second act, giving way to a series of gray skyscapes. The musical ends with a bleak, searing image as the denizens of Anatevka take to the road, becoming archetypal symbols of the Jewish Diaspora.

How do the vaudevillian gags of Joseph Stein’s book hold up in this austere environment? Better than might be expected. The absence of an orchestra pit (the musicians are seated in a corner of the stage) brings the characters into the audience’s lap, allowing the performers to tone down the shtickier aspects of the writing. (The model here seems to be Norman Jewison’s marvelous movie version.) But if the performers ease up on the stereotypical inflections we associate with this kind of humor, the jokes still land: At intermission, a pre-teen girl was still giddily recalling the hilarity of the confused negotiations for Tzeitel’s hand — you know, when Tevye thinks they’re talking about a cow: “Today you want one! Tomorrow you may want two!”

The production already has drawn criticism for being ethnically incorrect — a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece suggested it might not be “Jewish enough.” But the material itself has scarcely been touched, and to suggest that Stein’s book and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s score could somehow be de-Semiticized is to denigrate the careful way in which they artfully integrated the sounds and spirit of the culture they were depicting into the rigid framework of popular musical comedy. The musical’s vision of shtetl life was always ersatz, softened for consumption by Broadway audiences, and its creators never pretended otherwise.

Jerome Robbins’ magnificent choreography has been retained, and it’s a measure of the production’s essential fidelity to the spirit of the original that it blends so seamlessly into Leveaux’s staging. Robbins himself pared away much of the more stylized, Broadway-ballet dancing in the show as it moved to New York, recognizing that the show required an authenticity better expressed in the earthbound, communal dances that remain, most spectacularly the bottle dance at Tzeitel’s wedding, performed with exhilarating brio here. “The Dream” is vividly staged in a two-dimensional plane as a Chagall painting come to life — a gracious nod to the original production design.

The performances are clear, unforced and often lovely. Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, is played by Sally Murphy with a slight gawkiness to match that of her quivering wreck of a fiance, Motel. As that cowed but determined tailor, John Cariani provides the evening’s only exuberantly laugh-grabbing turn, and he is warmly applauded for it.

It could reasonably be argued that a fine — and more ethnically appropriate — homegrown alternative to Laura Michelle Kelly (London’s upcoming Mary Poppins — go figure!) could have been found to undertake the role of Hodel, but Kelly gives a spirited, beautifully sung performance. Tricia Paoluccio and David Ayers are appealing as the youngsters loving across the religious divide, and Robert Petkoff makes a fine impression as the incubating revolutionary.

Nancy Opel, as the outmatched matchmaker Yente, is precise and funny without being overbearing in this decorative comic role. Bock and Harnick recently renewed their collaboration to provide a new song for Yente, a comic complaint about the world going to hell, “Topsy-Turvy.” It serves to enliven the generally solemn tone of the second act, and also redresses, at least slightly, the musical imbalance in the show (all the ensemble songs, save the mournful farewell “Anatevka,” are in the first act).

Randy Graff is adequate but a trifle bland as Tevye’s wife, Golde. A more intimate staging for Tevye and Golde’s touching second-act duet, “Do You Love Me?,” would give more shape to their relationship. (This is one of the few instances in which the production’s wide-open staging works against the material.)

The only aspect of the production that could sensibly arouse controversy is Molina’s performance as Tevye.

The role was famously created by Zero Mostel, who was handpicked by Robbins despite the enmity between them due to the director’s cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robbins must have felt the show needed Mostel’s exuberant, even vulgar presence at its center — a personification of the life force that endures despite the ravaging forces of time, change, oppression.

But such a performance would not be in keeping with the restrained palette of Leveaux’s staging. Accordingly, Molina’s Tevye is not a Jewish superman but an Everyman. His performance takes its cue from Tevye’s rationality, his careful weighing of all the alternatives — Molina doesn’t turn Tevye’s shilly-shallying “on the other hand…” into the recurring joke it presumably was in Mostel’s hands.

A Chekhovian air of defeat haunts Molina’s Tevye from the beginning: By the time he finishes singing the exuberant “If I Were a Rich Man,” Molina’s Tevye is disgusted and a little embarrassed at his idle daydreaming — he tosses in a defeated little “oy” before the last bars. It’s a respectable, intelligent performance, but it lacks stage-filling scope.

Absent the bravura theatricality, we want at least a communicated profundity of feeling, or a starker contrast between Tevye’s tough exterior and his soft pudding heart. Neither is forcefully felt here.

But it’s not a crippling liability, by any means. Even presented in a more reflective manner, the musical is as sturdy and indomitable as Tevye himself — its journey is far from complete.

Fiddler on the Roof

Minskoff Theater; 1,691 seats; $100 top

Production

A James L. Nederlander, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Harbor Entertainment, Terry Allen Kramer, Bob Boyett/Lawrence Horowitz and Clear Channel Entertainment presentation of a musical in two acts based on Sholom Aleichem stories, by special permission of Arnold Perl, with book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by David Leveaux. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Musical staging, Jonathan Butterell. Music director, Kevin Stites.

Creative

Sets, Tom Pye; costumes, Vicki Mortimer; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Acme Sound Partners; music coordinator, Michael Keller; orchestrations, Don Walker; additional orchestrations, Larry Hochman; production stage manager, David John O'Brien. Opened Feb. 26, 2004. Reviewed Feb. 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Tevye - Alfred Molina Golde - Randy Graff Tzeitel - Sally Murphy Hodel - Laura Michelle Kelly Chava - Tricia Paoluccio Shprintze - Lea Michele Bilke - Molly Ephraim Yente - Nancy Opel Lazar Wolf - David Wohl Rabbi - Yusef Bulos Mordcha - Philip Hoffman Avram - Mark Lotito Mendel - Chris Ghelfi Motel - John Cariani Fiddler - Nick Danielson Fyedka - David Ayers Perchik - Robert Petkoff Constable - Stephen Lee Anderson
With: Stephen Ward Billeisen, Randy Bobish, Melissa Bohon, Enrique Brown, Rita Harvey, Joy Hermalyn, Keith Kuhl, Jeff Lewis, Craig Ramsay, David Rossmer, Jonathan Sharp, Haviland Stilwell, Barbara Tirrell, Tom Titone, Michael Tommer, Francis Toumbakaris, Marsha Waterbury, Bruce Winant.

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