Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish Off-Broadway Review: Different Context, Still Glorious

There’s one way that the Yiddish language “Fiddler On The Roof” directed by Joel Gray and starring Steven Skybell is strikingly different now that it’s moved uptown to the Shubert’s Off-Broadway house, Stage 42. The production by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) debuted downtown near Battery Park at the 375-seat Edmond J. Safra Hall on the first floor of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, downstairs from the exhibitions that recall the people and communities destroyed during the Holocaust. Right outside the 499-seat auditorium of the new theater on 42nd Street, by contrast, a concession stand sells merchandise (with the word “merchandise” crossed out and replaced with the Yiddish word “Tchotchkes”) featuring such items as a baseball cap printed with the words “Oy Vey.”

I wish they hadn’t done this, but neither the commercial context nor the larger stage and theater substantially alter what is essentially the same glorious show that I saw last year (please read my review ), which opened July 4, 2018, was extended four times, and finally closed on December 30, 2018 only after the announcement that it would transfer uptown.

“A Fidler Afn Dakh” is still in Yiddish with English and Russian Supertitles — assuring that nobody who can read either of those languages will miss a single word. It has the same modest design — the set is mostly just a backdrop of several large sheets of brown paper, one of which is printed with the Hebrew word for Torah – the same 12-piece orchestra.
The cast is largely intact, although I miss two of the principals – Daniel Kahn as the radical Pertshik and Mary Illes as Tevye’s wife Golde. The new Golde, Jennifer Babiak, rather than efficiently no-nonsense, is broader and harsher.

Indeed, in general the acting is a bit broader. Steven Skybell as Tevye is no longer as low-key, although he is still more everyman than clown. Jackie Hoffman as Yente remains a revelation; an integral part of her comedic gifts are the shrug and the whine and the wisecrack that are embedded in the rhythm of the Yiddish language.

Yiddish just makes sense for this musical, which is based on the 19th century short stories by Sholom Aleichem, who wrote in Yiddish about Tevye the Dairyman, his family and his neighbors.
There is a stunning moment that I didn’t fully register the first time around, which occurs after Tevye has arranged with Leyzer-Volf the butcher for him to marry Tevye’s oldest daughter Tsaytl (portrayed by Rachel Zatcoff, as she was downtown, although the character’s name was spelled differently in the program.) Tsaytl, of course, will blow up this arranged marriage, marrying the person she loves instead, the poor tailor Motl (portrayed again, credibly, by Ben Liebert.) She is thus going against tradition, as do two more of Tevye’s daughters in their pursuit of husbands – which is basically the plot of the musical.
In this early moment, after Tevye the milkman and Leyze-Volf the butcher have patted each other on the back, suddenly Fyedke (Cameron Johnson), a Russian character who will figure later in the plot, sings out a beautiful, glass-shattering note, congratulating Tevye. Fyedke and his fellow countrymen launch into a Russian-inspired celebratory dance that Staś Kmieć has choreographed in the style of Jerome Robbins, the choreographer of the original 1964 Broadway production. The Russians and the Jews then dance not exactly together, but in concert. The merriment is interrupted by the arrival of the Russian constable bearing bad news for the Jews. It’s a sequence that’s thrilling in its entertainment, encouraging in its ecumenical message (which I suspect is more Broadway than Aleichem) and underneath it all, despite the Oy Vey hats on sale in the lobby, still both sobering and deeply moving.


Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged.

“A Fidler Afn Dakh”
Stage 42
Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein,
Translated in Yiddish by Shraga Friedman
Directed by Joel Grey
choreography by Staś Kmieć, musical direction by Zalmen Mlotek, set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Ann Hould-Ward, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, wig and hair design by Tom Watson
Cast: Steven Skybell as Tevye, Jackie Hoffman as Yente, Jennifer Babiak as Golde, Joanne Borts as Sheyndl, Michael Einav as Ensemble; Lisa Fishman Bobe Tsatyl, Kirk Geritano as Avrom; Abby Goldfarb as Female Swing; Samantha Hahn as Beylke; Cameron Johnson as Fyedka; John Giesige as Male Swing/Dance Captain; Ben Liebert as Motl Kamzoyl; Moshe Lobel as Understudy; Stephanie Lynne Mason as Hodl; Evan Mayer as Sasha; Rosie Jo Neddy as Khave; Raquel Nobile as Shprintze; Jonathan Quigley as Ensemble; Nick Raynor as Yosl; Bruce Sabath as Leyzer- Volf; Kayleen Seidl as Ensemble; Drew Seigla as Perchik; Adam B. Shapiro as Der Rov; Jodi Snyder as Frume-Sore; James Monroe Števko as Mendl; Lauren Jeanne Thomas as Der Fiddler; Bobby Underwood as Der Gradavoy; Mikhl Yashinsky as Nokhum/Mordkhe and Rachel Zatcoff as Tsaytl.
Running time; three hours including an intermission
Tickets: $59 to $119
Fiddler on the Roof is scheduled to run through June 30, 2019.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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