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Friday, February 5, 2016

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof "To Life" photo by Joan Marcus
Last night while I was watching Bartlett Sher's revival of Fiddler on the Roof, I wondered if some shows are so strong that they simply do the work for the director, set designers, costume designers, actors, and dancers. I could name about 100 things I could have nit-picked about this particular production of Fiddler, but in the middle of the second act when Hodel said goodbye to Tevye at the train station I started crying, and I basically cried for the rest of the show. I can't remember the last time a Broadway show actually made me cry.


Sher's direction of Fiddler is mostly non-intrusive, except for a few minor points. He uses a framing device that doesn't quite work, and in fact seems like a cheap Schindler's List-inspired gimmick. He also emphasizes the more serious side of the story as opposed to the humor. Whether you like this is a personal preference. For example the usually lighthearted "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" starts with Tzeitel crying hysterically, and is sung as a sad, wistful song. This kind of negates the coming-of-age story that each of Tevye's daughters go through. And obviously no one came to any kind of agreement about accents. Danny Burstein (Tevye) is rocking a generic Brooklyn/Yiddish accent, while Jessica Hecht (Golde) uses a weird faux-Russian accent, and the daughters talk in "show business American."

Bottle Dance, photo by Joan Marcus

The choreography by Hofesh Schechtler was "inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins" but in the NY Times interview he said that except for the famous Wedding bottle dance "for my taste it was not energetic enough." Schechtler's choreography however to my taste was too frantic. I'm glad that he tried to capture the life-affirming energy of traditional Jewish dancing but sometimes it was busy to the point of being sloppy, and other times (the opening number "Tradition") it was sort of sluggish. But enough Robbins DNA exists for the dances to still be one of the most thrilling parts of the show.

Michael Yeargan's sets are simple but effective -- there's a white brick wall that is the unit set, while flying drops indicate Teyve's house, the village, and other scene changes.  For those looking for lavish sets this isn't it but I didn't have a problem and thought the sets told the story well. I do wish that a rather odd-looking drop that was really a few blades of grass had been larger, so there could have been more of a sense of a rural Jewish town. Catherine Zuber's costumes were traditional and inoffensive. 

Tevye's Dream, photo by Joan Marcus
 Danny Burstein plays Tevye in a rather subdued way. The good part -- his interactions with his wife, daughters, and villagers had a natural feel, as if he really were simply the Milkman Next Door. On the other hand (as Tevye would say) the vaudeville style  jokes and numbers are also muted. For example, look at Zero Mostel's "If I Were a Rich Man." It's an absolute explosion of energy. Burstein's "If I Were a Rich Man" was sung almost like a daydreaming monologue and had none of the traditional sound effects (like the squawking chickens) and many of the song's punchlines ("one long staircase just going up, and one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere just for show") were oddly rushed. This is usually a show-stopper but it only received polite applause.

Here is the masterful Zero Mostel performance:


Burstein's value came in the second act, when he had to make truly difficult decisions about his family, faith, and future. I know I wasn't the only one sobbing during "Chava's Dream," especially the moment when he pulls a curtain past her. But I do wish Burstein had been allowed to be more larger than life because the one time he hammed it up, he stopped the show. Teyve's Dream (above) was by far the biggest audience hit of the night. It was surreal, funny, and Burstein was obviously having fun playing to the audience.

Jessica Hecht as Golde tried this odd Russian accent that didn't really work, but otherwise she was an excellent Golde. Not the most pleasant voice, but she's exactly what you'd expect Golde to be like -- stern, careworn, loving. Her brief reunion with Chava at the end of the show caused another crying jag. An understudy sang for Tzeitel but in general Tevye's daughters and their suitors were all well-cast, with special plaudits for Samantha Massell's spirited Hodel, Adam Kantor's Motel and Ben Rappaport's Perchik. Alix Korney (Yente) and Adam Dannheiser (Lazar) the butcher were the only ones who really embraced the larger than life vaudeville schtick, and the audience response to their punchlines was consistent.

Sabbath Prayer, photo by Joan Marcus

This show really does write itself though. The humor, warmth, and heartbreak of Joseph Stein/Sheldon Harnick's books/lyric and the score by Jerry Bock make Fiddler make it almost impossible to ruin. Audience participation is also part of it -- there were people in front of me who had the entire show memorized and it was a joy to see such active participation. There's so many wonderful moments in the show that it's impossible to list all of them, which is why the ending of the show is so emotional. As the fiddler plays one final time and the curtain drops on the whole village of Anatevka dispersed into uncertain futures, it really is like saying goodbye to a whole community. Many Broadway shows have dated themselves. For instance The King and I for all its wonderful music and choreography also has a naive, Western exceptionalism zeitgeist that instantly dates itself. Fiddler's stories about family, faith, community, and being forced to leave your homeland seem as fresh as ever. Fiddler is a musical theater "Tradition" that lives on. 

2 comments:

  1. Yes, some shows are truly bulletproof. The end of Man of La Mancha is like that, too. If you don't feel something when Don Q dies and Aldonza says "my name is Dulcinea" there is no hope for you. I have been in Fiddler onstage - Russian tenor, Reb Nahum the beggar, Grandma Tzeitel (yes, really) - and the pit - pianist, music director, conductor - and I guarantee one thing. Act 2 is terrific, but very long. I once saw a sign when visiting Washington DC that the subway was running extra long hours because of a production of Fiddler at Wolf Trapp. The show got it so late, they had to add extra train times.

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    1. Sher I think made some cuts to Act Two in the previews because previews supposedly ran over 3 hours but last night the show definitely was over by 9:45.

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