Fiddler on the Roof review – revival tugs the heartstrings as traditions prevail
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ review: Broadway revival mines a classic musical mother lode.
Broadway must be overdue for a controversy. The sorry state of the world gives us new reason to appreciate the depth of feeling so powerfully, so ingeniously embedded in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the much-loved and much-revived 1964 musical comedy that has returned to Broadway at a time when its story of the gradual disintegration of a family, and a community, strikes home with unusual force. How else to explain the consternation that has stirred over Bartlett Sher’s slender directorial intervention into the unquestionable classic Fiddler on the Roof?
The superb new production, which opened on Sunday at the Broadway Theater, certainly honors the show’s ebullience of spirit, as embodied in the central character of the Jewish milkman Tevye, living in a Russian shtetl in the early 20th century, eternally wagging his tongue, shaking his fist and cracking wise at an indifferent God. In the wake of his exquisite treatments of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” and the still-running “The King and I” at Lincoln Center Theater, Sher reveals an equally perceptive eye and ear for Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1964 melody-rich account of the persistent hardships and simple joys of life in a besieged Jewish shtetl.
In a brief framing device, perhaps less than a minute all told, the actor Danny Burstein walks out onto the stage bareheaded, in a contemporary red parka. In the superb Broadway revival that opened Sunday night, the 1964 musical proves that it has such great bones, it doesn’t need a marquee-size star at its center. He’s done himself — and audiences — a huge favor with his astute casting, particularly in the choice of Danny Burstein in the all-important role of Tevye, the impoverished milkman who is forced to come to terms with a changing world by his restless daughters. What it has is Danny Burstein, a five-time Tony nominee, most recently for “Cabaret.” He’s a fine character actor, and his take on Tevye is typically subtle and gentle. Our lives are “laden with happiness and tears.” The plain-spoken eloquence and economy of this number runs throughout the score. “Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us,” the citizens of Anatevka observe in “To Life!” And in the beautiful “Far from the Home I Love,” a young woman marvels at the reality that a man “would change the shape of my dreams…” So few words, such evocative imagery.
It’s impossible to watch the people of Tevye’s town, Anatevka, marching toward their unknown destinies in the shadow of a threatened pogrom without thinking of the thousands of families fleeing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere today. Burstein, seen at the Kennedy Center as an aptly forlorn Buddy in the 2011 revival of “Follies,” brings a becoming warmth to his Tevye, in a performance that never tips over into showiness: this is a man who seems authentically wrenched by the position he’s in, torn between the ways he knows and the children he wants to make happy. As he reads, he doffs the parka and dons a head covering and seamlessly transforms into the dairyman Tevye, a beloved father of five dowry-less daughters and hero of this 1964 musical.
It’s a wryly, fully realized portrayal, one that gathers strength as the weight of outside events bears down on his little, out-of-the-way village of Anatevka, in Czarist Russia. Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist and the last surviving member of the original creative team, initially objected but eventually accepted this change, and also a moment in the finale when Tevye again pulls on that parka, seemingly making a subtle connection between the exiled of the Russian shtetl Anatevka and the refugees of today. A most advantageous match has been made for this Tevye, in the terrific Jessica Hecht as his long-suffering wife Golde; her take-no-guff tartness allows the bickering between them to sound as if it is the reassuring background noise of a long, unspoken affection. Indeed, their push-me-pull-you chemistry is a splendid set-up for their tender Act 2 ballad, “Do You Love Me?”, in which Tevye and Golde grudgingly have to admit — without getting meshugge about it, mind you — that yes, being together hasn’t been so bad.
Jessica Hecht and Danny Burstein.Photo: Joan MarcusBut the show eventually works its magic as, once again, Tevye the milkman asks God for advice on how to handle his headstrong daughters. And around this central pair orbit other excellent actors, among them, Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell and Melanie Moore as the “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”-singing oldest daughters; Adam Kantor, Ben Rappaport and Nick Rehberger as their various suitors and Alix Korey, playing a businesslike busybody of a Yenta. “Fiddler” has been belittled in some quarters over the years as a schmaltzy relic.
Even iconic shows can benefit from reinvention and for assimilated American Jews (like myself), who have typically constituted the Fiddler fan base, our strongest connections to the shtetl likely do come from guidebooks or storybooks or cultural products like Fiddler. In the background, tensions between Jews and Russians flare up — the action takes place in a shtetl in 1905, and menace is always bubbling under the surface. The score, by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), enters your bloodstream, indelibly, upon a single hearing, so rousing are its songs of celebration, so beautiful the melodies of its songs of love and loss — two sides, for Tevye, of the same coin.
And Joseph Stein’s book miraculously blends borscht belt humor (he was an alumnus of the fabled writing staff of “Your Show of Shows”) with a moving depiction of Tevye’s conflicted heart and the suffering of the Jews under Russian imperialism. It endures, in point of fact, as a meticulously well-built musical, a bit overlong, maybe, but with a whole raft of smashing numbers, from the exhilarating opening song, “Tradition,” all the way through to the plaintive closing refrains of the finale, “Anatevka.” Sher’s production underlines the inherent strengths and adds to them, with some thrilling dances, choreographed by Hofesh Schechter (and inspired by the steps in director-choreographer Jerome Robbins’s original version), and a beautiful physical production by set designer Michael Yeargan. The wooden-house set pieces and multi-hued backdrops that fly gracefully in and out betoken the humble, homespun lives outlined in the stories of Sholom Aleichem, on which the musical is based.
Jessica Hecht makes for a more effortful Golde, but there is some fine supporting work, particularly from Adam Dannheisser as the rejected suitor Lazar Wolf. Burstein unleashes his rich baritone with roof-raising force when Tevye’s emotion is at its height, bringing home the character’s indomitable will, often hidden beneath his self-deprecating humor and sorely tried by his rebellious daughters.
The scene that he and Tevye share in the tavern is a highlight of the show and perhaps the best example of Schechter’s choreography, which intelligently combines folk dance with modern dance and just an occasional touch Broadway pizzazz, while retaining a few of the Robbins set pieces, such as the bottle dance. He reads Tevye’s first lines of the musical from a book, and removes the coat to reveal Tevye’s costume, for “Tradition.” At evening’s end he’s seen again in his overcoat, joining the populace streaming out of the village, on a march to wherever is next.
Burstein’s way with a classic Jewish joke is assured but unforced, his performance affecting but not overscaled, in keeping with the production’s emphasis on the musical’s emotional underpinnings, rather than the frosting of shticky comedy. (In this it resembles the movie, one of the rare first-rate translations of a musical to film; the most recent Broadway revival, in 2004, starring Alfred Molina, attempted less felicitously to achieve the same ends, and was accused by some of being too genteel, and for that matter, too gentile.) A framing device finds Mr. In any case, the lovely contributions all around assure that “Fiddler” has earned its return visit to Broadway, and even helps to erase the memory of some inferior incarnations of the recent past. Choreography, Hofesh Schechter; music direction and orchestrations, Ted Sperling; sets, Michael Yearn; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder, sound, Scott Lehrer. For Tevye, the conflict is a matter of daily headaches, given that three of his five daughters are approaching marrying age, and each proves unwilling to obey the longstanding tradition of arranged weddings. Golde seems forever to be slightly stooped with work or worry, and is plaintively dismayed at Tevye’s ability to see both sides — or rather several sides — of any issue. (His constant invoking of the phrases “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” is a lovable running gag.) Alexandra Silber makes a staunch, determined Tzeitel, Tevye’s eldest; alas we don’t get to hear much of her gorgeous soprano.
Motel, the struggling tailor she loves, is played by Adam Kantor with an antic, quivering nervousness — he flings himself under the milk cart when Tevye flies into a rage at Motel’s declaration of love for Tzeitel. The production’s potentially most controversial element is the absence of the choreography by Jerome Robbins, who also directed the original production and is considered as much the show’s author as the writers of its book and score.
Certainly the new choreography, by the Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter, who heads a dance company in London, bears the unmistakable stamp of Robbins’s genius. Many steps from the famous “bottle dance” at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding seem identical to those in the original. (Who would want it any other way?) Mr. Shechter’s dances, while often recalling Robbins’s, may lack his formal beauty and ingenuity, but they possess the athletic exuberance that was also a Robbins trademark. The orchestra performs the score, under the music director Ted Sperling, with sumptuous, idiomatic style, and the production’s design elements, as is customary in Mr.
And Michael Yeargan’s fondness for levitating set pieces here has some symbolic resonance. (Of course, it also alludes to Marc Chagall’s floating imagery, which partially inspired Boris Aronson’s original designs.) The buildings of Anatevka sometimes hover above the stage, and as the production progresses they grow smaller; we seem to see them from a greater distance. All we see are people in transit, carrying the few possessions they can bring with them, moving with a weary but steady gait into an unknown future, an image that might have been taken from the front page of a newspaper on almost any day this year.
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