By Stanford Friedman
Fiddler on the Roof, which premiered in 1964, is a timeless musical. But the fascinating new staging from The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is a time-bending musical. Spoken and sung in Yiddish (with supertitles in both English and Russian), this Fidler afn Dakh feels like an ancient version newly unearthed. Translated by the late Shraga Friedman (and originally performed in Israel in 1965), the action still takes place in a small Russian shtetl, circa 1905. But the language, stagecraft and Joel Grey’s smooth direction all conspire to transform the work into a bible story. Gone from the set design are the Chagall-inspired intense colors and sharp angles. They are replaced by a handful of chairs and parchment-colored curtains, with one that bears just a single word, “Torah,” written in Hebrew. Gone are the larger than life Tevye interpretations from Zero Mostel, and Topol in the film version, and Danny Burstein in the 2016 Broadway revival. They are replaced by Steven Skybell, portraying a comparatively modest servant of God, facing challenges ranging from a sick horse to defining the boundaries of love.
For those who have the original lyrics by Sheldon Harnick hardwired into their musical consciousness, the changes Friedman fiddles with, to accommodate the musicality of Yiddish or to speak more directly to a Judaic audience, are sometimes charming and at other times mind blowing. It begins with the opening number, Traditsye (Tradition). Where Harnick danced around the connection between traditions and faith, Friedman draws a direct line between ritual and the laws of God. “Torah” and “Tradition” become synonymous and while Harnick’s daughters “mend and tend and fix” for their mamas, Friedman’s sing of learning how to kosher meat. One casualty of performing in translation is the loss of English puns. Such is the case with the classic Matchmaker number. Harnick’s payoff line, “Playing with matches a girl can get burned,” is replaced by the more pedestrian “Playing with fire a girl can get burned.” On the other hand, If I were a Rich Man becomes the more colorful If I Were a Rotshild and contains an inside joke about one sign of wealth being the ability to belong to a synagogue where you “can even understand the cantor.”
Paralleling Skybell’s earnest performance, Jennifer Babiak is a sincere and graceful Golde. When the couple ponder their relationship in a beautiful rendition of Libst Mikh, Sertse? (Do You Love Me?), Babiak’s genuine delivery adds pathos even to her singing that her heart is “verklempt.” And who knew that speaking English was keeping Jackie Hoffman back from being funnier than she already is? Here, as the gossipy matchmaker Yente, she berates her deceased husband in a prolonged Yiddish rant that is flat out hilarious. Eldest daughter Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) is statuesque and her groom Motl (Ben Liebert) is diminutive. Alas, the only laugh that comes from this is an unintentional one when Tevye sings, in Sunrise, Sunset, “When did he grow to be so tall?” In her rendition of Far From the Home I love, Stephanie Lynne Mason, as Hodl, stirringly demonstrates that home is where the heart is, even if it’s in Siberia. And the full emotional weight of Joseph Stein’s book comes crashing down on the shoulders of Khave (a driven Rosie Jo Neddy) when she chooses to marry outside the faith. In an inspired piece of staging, the entire ensemble sweeps her away from Tevye’s view.
In lieu of wooden door frames, the actors pantomime kissing a mezuzah whenever entering and exiting a house, a clever bit of business that establishes both the physical and spiritual space of the characters while foreshadowing their impending fate. And in a production that could be forgiven for skimping on orchestrations and choreography, neither are neglected. Zalmen Mlotek conducts a vigorous thirteen-piece orchestra while choreographer Staś Kmieć nails three large dance sequences employing Cossacks and bottle dancers who defy the laws of physics, as well as a ten-foot high ghost who defies the laws of nature. And, defying the laws of shows that open way Off-Broadway, this run at the Museum of Jewish Heritage has reached a fourth extension, with performances, miracle of miracles, through December 30.
Fiddler on the Roof – Book by Joseph Stein; Music by Jerry Bock; Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; Yiddish Translation by Shraga Friedman; Directed by Joel Grey.
Steven Skybell (Tevye), Jennifer Babiak (Golde), Jackie Hoffman (Yente), Kirk Geritano (Avrom), Maya Jacobson (Beylke), Cameron Johnson (Fyedka), Drew Seigla (Perchik), Ben Liebert (Motl), Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), Rosie Jo Neddy (Khave), Raquel Nobile (Shprintze), Bruce Sabath (Leyzer-Volf), Jodi Snyder (Frume-Sore), Lauren Jeanne Thomas (The Fiddler), Bobby Underwood (The Constable), Moshe Lobel (Mordkhe), Rachel Zatcoff (Tsaytl), Lydia Gladstone (Grandma Tsaytl); Joanne Borts (Sheyndl), Michael Einav (Ensemble), John Giesige (Sasha), Nick Raynor (Yussel), Adam Shapiro (Rabbi), James Monroe Stevko (Mendl), Jessica Rose Futran (Ensemble), Jonathan Quigley (Ensemble).
Choreography by Staś Kmieć; Music Director/Conductor, Zalmen Mlotek; Beowulf Boritt, Set Design; Ann Hould-Ward, Costume Design; Dan Moses Schreier, Sound Design; Peter Kaczorowski, Lighting Design. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, www.NYTF.org, 866-811-4111. Through December 30. Running time: 3 hours.