After it premiered in 1964, the idea that Fiddler on the Roof was too ethnic would disappear into the dust-bin of theatre history. The theme of Fiddler on the Roof (in case any of you were in doubt) is tradition and the idea that every generation is challenged by the changes made by subsequent generations, has a universal appeal.
Fiddler… is the story of the milkman, Tevye, his wife, Golda (Jessica Hecht) and their five daughters: Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), Hodel (Samantha Massell), Chava (Melanie Moore), Sprintze (Jenny Rose Baker), and Bielke (Hayley Feinstein). They are living in a Russian shtetl at the early part of the 20th Century. Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava all defy their father’s expectations of an arranged marriage. Tzeitel is the first to cross the line when it is announced that the local matchmaker, Yente (Alix Korey), has arranged a marriage for her to the widowed butcher, Lazar Wolf (Adam Dannheisser). She begs her father to not make her marry him. Ultimately, Motel the tailor (Adam Kantor), a friend since childhood, asks Tevye for his daughter’s hand in marriage; he relents.
Hodel falls in love with Perchik (Ben Rappaport), a wide-eyed idealist who is subsequently arrested. She goes to live with him in Siberia, ultimately with her father’s “blessing.”
Chava, on the other hand, breaks her father’s heart the most when she falls in love with the Russian gentile, Fyedka (Nick Rehberger). Her decision to be with Fyedka despite her father’s wishes is the final straw; Tevye disowns her.
The humor that Harold Prince spoke of is indeed there in Joseph Stein’s book. It is played up to a fare-thee-well in the latest Broadway revival of Fiddler… by the talented Danny Burstein as Tevye. Burstein has the ability to balance that fine line between a Tevye who talks to God with a wink-and-a-nudge, and the man struggling as traditions he holds dear start to change before him. Burstein’s big voice gives Tevye a commanding presence.
The rest of the cast of Fiddler on the Roof is up-to-the-task. Jessica Hecht’s singing voice can best be described as serviceable but it’s suitable for their duet, “Do You Love Me.” She renders the put-upon mother of five girls perfectly. As the oldest daughter, Tzeitel, Alexandra Silber’s voice stood out for its beautiful, pure tone. Adam Kantor and Ben Rappaport gave fine performances as Motel and Perchik respectively. Both have lovely voices, but after hearing Burstein’s booming voice, they sound faint. Alix Korey’s Yente is extremely droll.
This Fiddler… is under the direction of Bartlett Sher, a man known for his deft hand at rejuvenating musical theatre classics (The King and I, South Pacific). His Fiddler… is no exception. It is beautifully staged; I have one “but.” Sher uses a convention that just didn’t reel in this theatre-goer. At the beginning of the show, we see a man (Burstein) enter from the audience. He is wearing what might be a Members Only jacket and his head is not covered. He is reading a book aloud; it is the first lines of the play. As the solo violin starts to play, he removes the jacket, covers his head and steps into the action of the play; it is Tevye. While this seems intended to create some type of portal from this time to another, it didn’t work, probably because it didn’t need it.On its own, Fiddler on the Roof draws parallels to today’s changing and dangerous world; that’s what makes it a classic.
This idea of comingling the old with the new appears to be further carried through in the set. Most of the scenery (designed by Michael Yeargan) closely resembles Boris Aronson’s original set, itself based upon the work of painter Marc Chagall. It has background elements hung suspended half-way to the stage floor to create a sense of dimension. It is, however, ensconced in a modern-looking white brick portal and backdrop. During most of the show I found myself continually pondering, why? I can only assume this had something to do with surrounding the old with the new. Frankly, I found it ugly and distracting. However, Donald Holder’s lighting design adds depth to the semi-flat set.
This production is not using the Jerome Robbins choreography so deeply associated with this show. Rather, it has been choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, with inspiration attributed to Jerome Robbins. Shechter was born in Israel and is currently living in London where he founded his own dance company. His take on the vibrant dances of Robbins have a fresh and energetic feel to them. All the tradition we expect to be there is present, but there is also a captured and refined energy that makes Shechter’s choreography truly electric.
The revival of Fiddler on the Roof comes at a time when we are seeing communities world-wide being uprooted and forced from their homes, often at the hands of extreme violence. Who would think that a musical from 1964 could still hold such profound significance and reflect back to us, the way of the world.
Edited by Bruce W. Greenwood