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Greatness seems inevitable only in retrospect. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's "Fiddler On the Roof" is a near perfect musical.

Friday night, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and guest conductor John Head presented a concert version of "Fiddler" that captured the spirit, soul and heart of that great musical.

Most of the dialogue, songs and patter were included and the emphasis was upon strong voices and a superb orchestral score. It isn't every day that one gets to hear a pit orchestra composed of Philharmonic quality musicians play "Fiddler."

I don't know if there is an optimum number of songs for any musical, but Bock and Harnick composed 14 treasures for "Fiddler On The Roof" that are perfect examples of plot, character and masterful songs.

Bruce Gustafson, he of the big voice, started the night with Teyve's defining speech. "In our little village of Anatevka you might say every one of us is a fiddler on a roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck."

And with that, the villagers entered singing "Tradition," a song that combines craft, inspiration and art. In that one number the entire plot, theme and characters are enumerated. The concept of "Tradition" is used as a metaphoric history of the Jewish people.

It tells of traditions broken, violated and changed -- of traditions that made survival possible. Rigid rules of Hassidic behavior and dress are woven into a story that is so heart rending it's virtually impossible not to shed a tear.

Time and again, as one daughter after another leaves and as one tradition after another is destroyed, Teyve endures and the show rises to new emotional peaks.

When Tzeitel (Debbie Pappas), Hodel (Emily Jackson) and Chava (Patricia Hills) sang "Matchmaker," the contrast between a father choosing his daughter's husband and her lack of choice was infused with humor and regret. All three singers delivered the goods.

Bemoaning his bad luck, Teyve asks God why He picks the Sabbath for his horse to go lame. "Dear God, send us the cure, we already have the disease." With that he sings, "If I Were a Rich Man."

The dairyman constantly expresses himself to God in aphorisms. "I know we are the chosen people but once in a while couldn't you choose someone else?" Or, "Good news will come. Bad news refuses to go."

He's a man who can answer any question with a question. He is a compassionate father who wants the best for his daughters even when that choice breaks not only his "traditions" but also his heart.

Golde (Sheila McCarthy), his wife, is more than a match for him, but she represents the past in a changing landscape of pogroms and repression.

With songs like "Sabbath Prayer," "Miracle of Miracles" and "Sunrise, Sunset," there is no dearth of songs to please the ear and create a living picture of old world Jewish life.

The show is strongly cast with Keith Ersing as Motel the tailor, Rosalind Cramer as Yente, the match-maker, Paul Maisano as Perchik, the student and veteran actors Joe Natale, Manny Fried, Paul Todaro and John Buscaglia.

This is an exceptional show and fortunately there is one more performance scheduled tonight at 8.

An Evening of Broadway's Best
A "Fiddler on the Roof" concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra led by John Head
Friday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall, repeated tonight at 8 p.m.

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