The Review: National Yiddish Theatre Foksbriene’s Fiddler on the Roof
When I saw the 2016 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, I wrote a confessional of sorts in my review, nodding my head to the 1971 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”. The sentiment exists to this day, as I generally struggle with that dilemma with any beloved production, but when this particular show, with a widely loved book by Joseph Stein (Zorba), glorious music by Jerry Bock and delicately delicious lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (She Loves Me) floated out so magnificently before me back then, climbing up those dramatic stairs in the rear of that Broadway stage starring the luminescent Danny Burstein, I was able to balance the two in my brain, loving the experience I was being given, and savoring the joy that the film always provides.
The same can be said of this revival, with a delicate and delightful Yiddish translation by the talented Shraga Friedman. I found myself in the similar but uniquely different position for the second time. The fact that the film could play so easily in my head almost word for word, made the use of the English subtitles an added but not required layer of joyfulness. I could sit back and let the sound of the piece wash over me, never worrying if I was missing out on something, as I could almost hear the movie soundtrack play in my head. Or check in to see the loving translation play with words and phrasing with generosity and care. Yes, it made the constant comparison an active engagement, but with the beautifully nuanced performance of Steven Skybell (off-Broadway’s Babette’s Feast) as the father, Tevye, grappling with a changing world within his family, his community, and his country, it was easy to be pulled in to his love, joy and heart-break. His Tevya, pulling his horse-less dairy wagon as is “Traditsye“, is the heart of this less grand production, but it beats strong, embracing us in his care, his wit, his humor, and his pain.
His family is pure and solid, with his strong wife, Goldie, portrayed by Jennifer Babiak (Broadway’s Fiddler) plain and simple at his side. Her portrayal doesn’t dig as deep into the blood, sweat, and tears as much as I wanted it to, especially during the lovely and kind “Libst Mikh, Sertse?” (Do You Love Me?) but in many ways it rang just as true and clear. Stoic might be the best word, but to live her life, I’d say that would be a blessing. Their daughters, Tsaytl, lovingly portrayed by Rachel Zatcoff, Hodl, passionately played by Stephanie Lynne Mason, Khave, embodied with clarity by Rosie Jo Neddy, do a fine job growing into their roles as the musical digs in deeper. The two youngest, Beylke and Shpintze, portrayed by Samantha Hahn and Raquel Nobile, are a distraction, playing it a bit too squealingly bouncy for my taste. The older daughters’ performance of “Shadkhnte, Shadkhnte” (Matchmaker, Matchmaker), a real, playful, yet fearful imaginary rebuttal to the idea of Yente, played with wry sincerity by Jackie Hoffman (Broadway’s Charlie and…), is not the spirited swirlingly emotional journey as I remember, but like their mother, Golde’s demeanor, it’s satisfying enough, and we should be thankful for another blessing. The young ladies come more alive and authentic when partnered with the men that will turn their lives and traditions upside down, giving their characters a spark that had yet been lit.
First there is the poor tailor man deserving of some happiness, Motl, deftly played by Ben Liebert, who is able, most beautifully, to balance his love and nervousness with the rendering of his sweet “Nisimlekh-Veniflo’oys” (Miracle of Miracles). The miraculously well staged “Der Knolem” (The Dream), one of my favorite moments from the film, saves the eldest daughter from a doomed marriage, and the thrilling enactment that releases her is hilariously well crafted (I must admit I breathed out a sigh of relief, one I didn’t during the Broadway revival). The second young man who comes into that family of five daughters, the learned man, Pertshik, engagingly portrayed by Drew Seigla, most authentically defies tradition and asks Tevya for his blessing, but not his permission. It’s an exciting and vibrant moment, pushed to greater heights by Hodl’s “Vayt Fun Mayn Liber Heym” (Far From the Home I Love), which is achingly beautiful, especially when seen through the eyes of the heart-broken Tevye. Mason comes into the soul of Hodl at that moment, finally not content to be, “as she was, where she was”. With Fyedke, handsomely and athletically portrayed by Cameron Johnson, and Khave’s abrupt dismissal of the need for parental permission or a blessing, the weight of the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back crashes down in front of her parent’s eyes, forcing the world that once was to pack up and prepare to leave. It’s clear the old traditions are dying right before their very eyes, tearfully, but the soul of the family’s ties that bind are forever strong.
On a simple but honorable set, designed with a strong sense of purpose by Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s Meteor Shower), with concise lighting by Peter Kaczorowski (Broadway’s American Son), a sometimes shaky and poorly balanced sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (Broadway’s Iceman Cometh), and surprisingly too modern or clean costumes by Ann Hould-Ward (Broadway’s The Visit), the wound and word is ripping apart, and history and oppression is crashing in on “Anatevke” (Anatevka). The pain and moral acceptance echoes in the musical sound, which is gorgeously rich, thanks to the solid work of music director Zalmen Mlotek (Broadway’s Those Were The Days). The grandness of the last Broadway revival is easily set aside, with grace, for this off-Broadway intimate portrayal of a father’s steadfast and questioning attachment to God found here at Stage 42.
Fiddler on the Roof from The National Yiddish Theatre Foksbierne is artfully directed with a skilled ear for emotional engagement by Joel Grey (RTC’s The Cherry Orchard), utilizing the superb choreography by Jerome Robbins, and enhancing it with the musical staging and new choreography by Staś Kmieć. It is a surprisingly emotional experience, drawing us in to the traumatic upheaval of a valued existence that is at the core. It will leave you enriched and enlightened by faith and love, even with the knowledge that this production will never fully replace my glorious attachment to the film. The experience, possibly more authentic and beautiful in Yiddish, is based on Sholem Alecheim’s majestic stories, and will now sit, side by side with the other productions. Each one, particularly this adaptation because of their leading man, only enhance my love of this beautiful and soulful tale of Tevye the Dairyman and his family. Surviving history and a changing world. Too life, I say, long life, “Lekhayim“.