Tevye is back on Broadway, this time with Danny Burstein as the Russian Jewish milkman who tries to uphold tradition. “Fiddler on the Roof” has become a tradition in its own right. The production that’s just opened is the sixth on Broadway, but that doesn’t get at what a world-wide phenomenon this show has become over the past half century – 15 versions of it have been mounted in Finland, more than 1,300 in Japan, according to one of the two books published last year to coincide with its 50th anniversary. The Library of America judged it one of the greatest American musicals in the Golden Age of Broadway. More than a billion people reportedly have seen the 1971 movie; the stage show is a staple of schools throughout America; its strikingly memorable songs — among them “To Life (L’Chaim!),” “If I Were A Rich Man,””Sunrise Sunset,””Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and “Tradition,” — have helped generations of wedding and bar mitzvah musicians pay for their children’s college education.
Such a show will always draw an audience, and the new revival certainly has its rewards. Chief among them is Burstein, who portrays Tevye as warmhearted, big and cuddly – a mensch, in the words of his fellow villagers in the fictional shtetl of Anatevka, but also more varied and with less shtick than some past Tevyes. A 23-piece orchestra, unusually large for Broadway (The Color Purple has just seven musicians in its band), creates lush accompaniment for the singing. Both Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting are up to their usual standards of beauty in service of the story; the few interludes of dancing are fun. And yet, the biggest surprise of a production directed by Bartlett Sher, who did such wonders helming the Lincoln Center revival of The King and I and, before that, of South Pacific, is how ultimately unexceptional his “Fiddler on the Roof” feels. As those in Anatevka might put it: This, you couldn’t make more thrilling?
Sher does add touches in an apparent attempt to make the show more contemporary. He tacks on short silent scenes at the beginning and end of the show, in which Burstein, dressed in a modern puffy red parka, visits Anatevka, supposedly reading from a guidebook, and then joins the line of refugees. Theatergoers have reportedly seen this framing device as a nod to the present-day global refugee crisis. The show doesn’t need this extra moment for us to make the connection – the context of oppression is what has helped make this musical appealing to people around the world – but there’s no harm in it. Indeed, Sher’s production may be best in the serious scenes (albeit few and brief) where the outside (gentile) world intrudes.
Given the pressures of this dangerous world, and the challenges of life in the shtetl, Jessica Hecht’s interpretation of Tevye’s wife Golde as worn out is certainly justifiable, at least historically. But it’s not exactly invigorating entertainment, especially since her singing voice also lacks the zest we have come to expect. At least Hecht, a terrific actress (whom I loved in such shows as Stage Kiss and The Assembled Parties) has clearly put some thought into her characterization. Adam Kantor portrays the timid tailor Motel, the first of the three increasingly unsuitable suitors for Tevye’s three eldest daughters (unsuitable, that is, in Tevye’s eyes.) In his Playbill Who’s Who, Kantor tells us that he made his theatrical debut in sixth grade in his middle school’s Fiddler; one wonders if that production continues to influence him unduly: He indicates the character’s skittishness by cartoon fidgeting and even ducking under a wagon. Once Motel finds his courage, and Kantor his mellifluous voice (in his glorious rendition of “Miracle of Miracles”), the performer redeems himself and the character gains a semblance of credibility. If no other performances seem as obviously wrong-headed, none stand out as especially delightful. I wondered during the show whether the cast had been under-rehearsed, and realized later that it must be the director’s choice to tone down the characters joie de vivre, perhaps in the name of being more realistic. But it is their high spirits in the face of hardship that seems to me central to the musical’s appeal.
The sets are mostly flimsy-looking shacks, which are lifted into the air — and seemed designed for ease of handling in a road company tour; this made me wonder briefly whether the show was under-capitalized. In fairness, this design scheme was most likely an aesthetic choice, to mimic the flavor of Marc Chagall’s painting The Fiddler, which gave the musical its title; even the fiddler in this production at one point flies in the air. This is again, perhaps a way to underscore how rootless Tevye and the rest of the villagers, how likely to disappear – and again, an embellishment not needed, given the clear message from the script.
Tevye isn’t able to save the residents of Anatevya, despite his friendship with the Russian constable, but Danny Burstein does make this “Fiddler on the Roof” worth seeing.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
Fiddler on the Roof
at Broadway Theater
Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreography is by Hofesh Shechter, inspired by the original choreography of Jerome Robbins. The 23-piece orchestra is led by music director Ted Sperling.
scenic design by Michael Yeargan, costume design by Catherine Zuber, lighting design by Donald Holder and sound design by Scott Lehrer
Cast: Danny Burstein as Tevye, Jessica Hecht as Golde, Jenny Rose Baker as Shprintze, Michael C. Bernardi as Mordcha, Adam Dannheisser as Lazar Wolf, Hayley Feinstein as Bielke, Mitch Greenberg as Yussel and the Beggar, Adam Grupper as the Rabbi, Adam Kantor as Motel, Karl Kenzler as the Constable, Alix Korey as Yente, Jesse Kovarsky as The Fiddler, Samantha Massell as Hodel, Melanie Moore as Chava, George Psomas as Avram, Ben Rappaport as Perchik, Nick Rehberger as Fyedka, Jeffrey Schecter as Mendel, Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, Jessica Vosk as Fruma-Sarah, Lori Wilner as Grandma Tzeitel, Aaron Young as Sasha, and Jennifer Zetlan as Shaindel. The ensemble features: Julie Benko, Eric Bourne, Stephen Carrasco, Eric Chambliss, Austin Goodwin, Jacob Guzman, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Matt Moisey, Sarah Parker, Marla Phelan, Tess Primack, Silvia Vrskova, and Jonathan Royse Windham.
Running time: three hours, including one intermission.
Tickets: $35.00 – $167.00