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.
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.
But as directed by Bartlett Sher with his customary sensitivity (“The King and I,” “South Pacific”), this multihued staging moves to a heart-stopping conclusion. 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.
Oy! Enough philosophizing, as Tevye might say with a shrug. It’s just a musical, no? Yes, but what a musical. 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.
The role of Tevye, originated by the great comic actor Zero Mostel, is here undertaken by Danny Burstein, a Broadway veteran and five-time Tony nominee. Mr. 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. Mr. 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. Burstein first standing on a bare stage, a contemporary figure in a red parka facing a monumental gray brick wall. A sign bearing the name Anatevka hangs forlornly over a bare expanse. He is, we assume, a descendant of one of the townspeople, coming to see what is left of the shtetl. The answer: Nothing.
Mr. Burstein quickly unzips the parka to become Tevye, dressed traditionally, a prayer shawl hanging from underneath his vest. The famous violin solo is heard, and soon the stage has filled with the people of Anatevka singing the electrifying opening number, “Tradition,” which defines the central theme, the tension between honoring the past and accepting progress.
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. Tevye’s wife, Golde, is played by Jessica Hecht, whose singing is merely adequate and whose accent sometimes swerves toward the Germanic. But she brings a moving, careworn quality to her performance. 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. Motel’s anxiety evaporates, turning to joy, with his ecstatic performance of “Miracle of Miracles.”
The stories of Tzeitel’s sisters Hodel (Samantha Massell) and Chava (Melanie Moore) are less fully developed, but Ms. Massell’s lovely delivery of “Far From the Home I Love” is among the show’s musical highlights. Ben Rappaport portrays the man Hodel comes to cherish, the radical Perchik, with an apt fieriness, even truculence. The bookish Chava, played with quiet dignity by Ms. Moore, breaks Tevye’s burdened heart by falling in love with a gentile Russian, Fyedka (Nick Rehberger). Also undone by all this chaotic flouting of traditional marriage: the matchmaker Yente, imbued with flinty comic assurance by Alix Korey.
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. Mr. Sher’s production is credited as being “inspired by the work of” Robbins.
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. There’s certainly no lack of earth-stomping and hand-waving.
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. Sher’s revivals, are exemplary. Catherine Zuber’s costumes, in autumnal colors, are models of period homage. The lighting, by Donald Holder, enhances the quicksilver changes of mood. 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. By the climactic tableau they have disappeared entirely. 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.
Adapted from nytimes
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