By Stanford Friedman
If I were a rich man, I would pay the $227 for a premium ticket to the soulful new production of Fiddler on the Roof, holding forth at the Broadway Theatre. But even if I were a lowly peasant, I would still cobble up enough kopeks for a seat in the rear mezzanine ($35). The creative team, led by director Bartlett Sher, finds a new handle on what is already a can’t-fail musical, full of classic songs and universal themes. It is a sober revival, unsentimental, yet headstrong and emotionally charged. As lyricist Sheldon Harnick writes in To Life, “Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us.” On this night out, Sher & company are focused on the bruising.
The story, based on tales by Sholem Aleichem, revolves around Tevye (Danny Burstein), a poor milkman living in the small Russian village of Anatevka, circa 1905. With five daughters, a demanding wife, and the threat of a pogrom in the air, Tevye bargains with his God, struggling to balance his religious beliefs and traditions against the ever changing realities of family and community. He also gets to sing the immortal words, “Daidle deedle daidle digguh deedle daidle dum.”
Burstein invests his Tevye with the perfect amount of gravitas, while still showing complete command of playwright Joseph Stein’s easy humor. His smile is contagious. Indeed, if there is any fault to be found with this Tevye it is that his teeth are more stunningly white than any shtetl dweller could ever hope. It is hard, though, to get a bead on Jessica Hecht as his wife, Golde. At times, she is a perfect foil for Burstein, though at other moments she suddenly seems too young, or her accent wanders off in an odd direction.
The down side of staging a mostly serious Fiddler is that the more broadly comic characters pay a price. This is true of the Rabbi (Adam Grupper) who here seems lost in a Twilight Zone between goofy and stern. And it is also unfortunately true for Alix Korey’s Yente who, robbed of her shtick, is only a mildly amusing matchmaker and half as endearing as she should be.
Act One takes its sweet time in surrendering its pleasures, offering a moving and dark rendition of Matchmaker, Matchmaker. When Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), Hodel (Samantha Massell) and Chava (Melanie Moore), Tevye’s three eldest daughters, imagine their future marriages and sing “It’s not that I’m sentimental, it’s just that I’m terrified,” they are in a true panic. Similarly, when the shy Motel (Adam Kantor) successfully screws up the courage to ask Tevye for Tzeitel’s hand in marriage, and then unleashes his glee in Miracle of Miracles, there is no sense of metaphor. Kantor is undeniably invested in the fact that something unexplainably amazing just occurred.
Act Two, on the other hand, feels in a hurry to get the audience out before the three hour mark. As Perchik, a rebellious tutor who is Hodel’s beau, Ben Rappaport is in fine acting form, but lackluster in rushing through his number, Now I Have Everything, as if he can’t wait to get to Siberia. But Ms. Massell shines in her too-short solo, the devastating Far From the Home I Love, and Burstein’s beautiful and final lament, Chavelah, is made even more powerful by a dream ballet where Tevye physically manhandles a scrim that separates fantasy and reality. It gave me goose bumps.
Hofesh Shechter’s sharp-edged choreography is thrilling. In the chorus numbers he not only whips up a heightened version of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography of this show, he throws in a healthy dose of Robbins’ West Side Story attitude as well. This is particularly true in the To Life sequence at an inn where the tension between the Jewish clientele and an interloping group of gentile Russians turns palpable as they dance in packs like the Jets and the Sharks. Call it Gangs of Anatevka.
Sher puts his imprint on this staging by adding a bold framing device. The show begins with Burstein dressed as a present-day man, reading the show’s opening lines from out of a well-worn book, before transforming into Tevye by donning a cap and prayer shawl. The show ends with Burstein reappearing as this man who now shuts the book and takes his place amid the chorus in the closing tableau. It conjures Tevye’s worst nightmare; that while the daily wearing of a tallit and yarmulke has become, for many modern Jews, a long lost tradition, oppression and forced migration remain as contemporary as this morning’s news.
Fiddler on the Roof – Book by Joseph Stein; music by Jerry Bock; lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; directed by Bartlett Sher.
WITH: Danny Burstein (Tevye), Jessica Hecht (Golde), Jenny Rose Baker (Shprintze), Adam Dannheisser (Lazar Wolf), Hayley Feinstein (Bielke), Mitch Greenberg (Yussel), Adam Kantor (Motel), Karl Kenzler (Constable), Alix Korey (Yente), Samantha Massell (Hodel), Melanie Moore (Chava), Ben Rappaport (Perchik), Nick Rehberger (Fyedka), Alexandra Silber (Tzeitel), Michael C. Bernardi (Mordcha), Adam Grupper (Rabbi), Jesse Kovarsky (the Fiddler), George Psomas (Avram), Jeffrey Schecter (Mendel), Jessica Vosk (Fruma-Sarah), Lori Wilner (Grandma Tzeitel), Aaron Young (Sasha), Jennifer Zetlan (Shaindel), and Eric Bourne, Stephen Carrasco, Eric Chambliss, Jacob Guzman, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Sarah Parker, Marla Phelan and Tess Primack (Villagers).
Choreography by Hofesh Shechter; music director/new orchestrations by Ted Sperling; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Scott Lehrer; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; dance arrangements by Oran Eldor; music coordinator, David Lai; associate director, Tyne Rafaeli; production manager, Hudson Theatrical Associates; associate producers, John Frost and James Forbes Sheehan; fight director, BH Barry; production stage manager, Bess Marie Glorioso. At the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway, 212-239-6200, www.fiddlermusical.com. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.