So, my first confession of this review is that I love the movie, Fiddler on the Roof, made in 1971. And when I say “I love it”, I mean, I really really love that film. I can sing it word for word. I can hear the songs being sung by the gifted cast of this film directed by Norman Jewison starring Topol as Tevye. His emotional voice, his tender face, and his exceptional performance are etched in my memory and will last a lifetime. In my mind, he is perfection. As is Norma Crane as Golde (although I think she looked a bit too glamorous in the film), her voice speaks to me in its beauty and earthiness, especially during the lovely “Sabbath Prayer”. It is very difficult to quiet those voices in my head from a favorite movie or production (i.e. the original Spring Awakening) when I see the same show being revived. That means that I will compare the two in my head during the performance, and also, in this review. I just can’t help it.
That being said, I tried my hardest to walk into this Broadway revival of Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick’s (lyrics) Fiddler on the Roof, and I must say that I think I did a pretty good job of separating. This production, directed by Bartlett Sher (most recently the director of the King and I revival), opens on a stark stage with the town’s name, Anatevka, written on the beautifully textured back wall. Danny Burstein is the first to appear on the stage in a modern red coat. Not exactly what I was expecting. He is the main reason I wanted to see this production. I loved him in Cabaret, and Follies, just to name two of the sixteen Broadway credits he has to his name, not to mention the four Tony nominations under his belt. In my mind, he has the talent as an actor, singer, and a comedian to pull this off, and in turn, make me forget Topol. At least for the next few hours.
He appears on stage holding a small book as he starts to sing the wondrous “Prologue: Tradition”, as if he’s reading the words from, what I’m guessing, is the Sholom Aleichem stories which Fiddler is based upon. This directorial choice is setting this musical up as a historical story telling, as if this character is returning to the village of his ancestors. It’s a good deeply emotional beginning, and once he dumps the red jacket, and becomes Tevye, and the villagers start emerging from the back, chills run down my spine. All the voices start to combine into that rapturous sound of this classic musical. The production has me where it wants me, emotionally connected and invested.
Danny Burstein is remarkable in the role of the father who must deal with the ever-changing world while also trying to hold onto what he believes in and the traditions of his faith. He’s a magnificently talented singer and actor, with a wonderful sense of timing and an inner sense of joy and mischief that is so needed to play the lovely warm and funny character, Tevye. I was more curious how Jessica Hecht would be in the complicated role of Golde, the hardworking stern but loving wife of Tevye and mother to five girls. She’s such a talent on stage in the numerous plays on her resume (The Assembled Parties, Harvey, A View From the Bridge to name a few), but how would her voice resonate through this piece? I can’t say that I didn’t miss the smoother voice of Crane in the film version of the song, “Sabbath Prayer”, but she certainly regained my adoration with her deep and detailed characterization of the mother, during the immensely charming “Do You Love Me?” and the beautiful “Sunrise, Sunset”.
To me, Fiddler is all about the miraculous songs, and as for the other roles and songs, there are many highs and a few lows throughout the show. I must admit that “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” left me a bit disappointed. This is one of the moments that the movie memory won out over the performance in front of me. Also, Alexander Silber as Tzeitel could not erase Rosalind Harris’s tender face and voice from the film and my memory. This number lacked the fun and the playfulness of sisters taunting each other, balanced with the actual weight of what lies ahead for these three. Samantha Massel as Hodel, on the other hand, stole my heart every chance she could, particularly during “Far From the Home I Love”. That song broke my heart. And it was further broken by Burstein singing “Chavaleh”.
The bigger disappointment came during “Tevye’s Dream”. I’m going to suggest to you that the night I saw it, the smoke machine was not producing enough smoke to give the scene a sense of other worldliness. Well, I’m hoping it was just a technical malfunction and not a design plan. The dream started out well but as it moved forward into the manic haunting, it lacked that kind of crazy and dangerous energy. There was no sense of the nightmare we are being sold by Tevye, and when the ghost of Lazar Wolf’s first wife, Fruma-Sarah, comes on stage, rolling in on some very strange and solid looking tall dress like a porcelain figure, it lacked all the danger and madness that the film got so right. It felt and looked silly and without wildness, like she was on a motorized golf cart, driven in and driven out. Not threatening in the least. Here’s the kind of energy I wanted:
This brings me to probably my biggest complaint with the show. I just didn’t like the set design (sorry, Michael Yeargan). On one hand, it bothered me the way the houses and the background seemed to be floating in the air. The pieces were fairly well done, a bit cartoonish, but workable. I didn’t understand why the houses were suspended above the townsfolk as they walked and performed. It was a great distraction for me. But beyond the floating houses and fields, which I guess they were going for perspective, the actual look of most of the set pieces that landed on the stage floor were quite detailed and practical. On the other hand, the choreography (inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins; additional dance arrangements by Oran Elder) was exciting and breathtaking to watch. [One other odd note, there was one follow spot that creaked quite loudly like an old door throughout the show (this was told to us by the usher when we asked what that noise was), very distracting. Let’s hope they fixed that soon.]
But for all these moments, there were equally spectacular moments, such as “If I Were a Rich Man” wonderfully rich and hilarious, the exciting and energizing “To Life”, Motel’s (Adam Kantor) beautifully warm and giddy “Miracles of Miracles” which was filled with such love and hope, and the sad and ever so touching ending “Anatevka”. The wonderful Alix Korey as Yente, the matchmaker and Hecht start this song in such a simplistic, beautiful, and sad way, carrying me through to the end. I’m not sure that I appreciated the return of the red jacket narrative at the end. I guess it returns us to the historical memory story telling of the opening, but I don’t believe it made sense when he joined the traveling caravan of displaced townsfolk and started pulling Tevye’s cart. Regardless of this awkward choice, I was moved by this production. And the songs are reinserted into my brain and memory because of it. I’ve been singing them to myself ever since I left the theatre. So Mazel Tov to Burstein and the rest of the Fiddler family. I hope you have a long run.
Now go fix that follow spot please.