By Melissa Griegel . . .
The highly-acclaimed National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish has returned to Off-Broadway with a limited engagement at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) and will run through January 1, 2023. The stage is set very simply with long parchment scrolls hanging from the rafters, the center one with the word Torah prominently displayed in Hebrew. The main props used throughout the show are chairs and tables used in a variety of ways. A grand set of Anatekva is not needed in this staging of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish; the magnificent acting, dancing, and music more than carries the show.
Oscar and Tony Award-winner Joel Grey directs, led by Steven Skybell who recreates his award-winning performance as Tevye, the humble milkman trying to hold on to his faith and traditions in a changing world in the small Russian shtetl of Anatevka. Key elements of Jerome Robbins’ choreography are included with Staging and New Choreography by Staś Kmieć.
I have seen Fiddler on the Roof probably close to twenty times, between the movie and staged versions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Broadway traveling companies, community theater, and high school and junior high school productions. I cry every time I see the show—when Khave is shunned by Tevye, and when the villagers are leaving their home during “Anatekva.” When I saw this version in Yiddish in 2018, it was the first time I didn’t cry. I thought that perhaps I had just seen it so many times, that I no longer felt that emotional tug, but then I saw the Broadway touring company and I cried. I discussed this with Joel Grey, Steven Skybell, Jennifer Babiak, and Bruce Sabath at the Fiddler press day and we thought that perhaps it was because I was too focused on reading the supertitles at their last show. So this time, I decided to immerse myself fully in the show and simply watch it in the Yiddish, and only glance at the titles if needed. I don’t know Yiddish, but I know this show backwards and forwards. Not only did I cry at those two scenes, I found myself tearing up throughout the show, at parts that never affected me as strongly in the past. Paying full attention to the facial expressions and body language, to extract more meaning, and hearing the people of Anatekva converse and sing in Yiddish made it more authentic and real for me this time around and I found it to be my most emotional Fiddler experience yet. If you know the show well, I suggest you try this, even if it’s just for the songs and not the conversations.
The audience at New World Stages clapped along with the happy dancing scenes, laughed at the humor, and, yes, they also cried. In this day and age, with anti-semitism on the rise and a Russian invasion of Ukraine (where Anatekva would be today), the show is more relevant than ever. It reminds us that history does repeat itself, and we have not yet developed into a society able to accept others for their differences. The cast is rounded out with Jennifer Babiak (Golde), Lisa Fishman (Yente), Ben Liebert (Motl), Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), Michael Nigro (Fyedke), Rosie Jo Neddy (Khave), Bruce Sabath (Leyzer-Volf), Drew Seigla (Pertshik), and Rachel Zatcoff (Tsaytl). The ensemble features Jonathan Cable (Sasha), Yael Eden Chanukov (Ensemble), John Giesige (Swing), Kirk Geritano (Avrom), Abby Goldfarb (Ensemble), Raquel Nobile (Shprintse), Jonathan Quigley (Chaim), Nick Raynor (Yosl/Dancer/Ensemble), Adam B. Shapiro (Der Rov/Ensemble), Jodi Snyder (Beylke, Frume-Sore), James Monroe Števko (Mendl/Ensemble), Ron Tal (Ensemble), Lauren Jeanne Thomas (Der Fidler), Bobby Underwood (Der Gradavoy), and Mikhl Yashinsky (Nokhum/Mordkhe).
Steven Skybell plays Tevye with warmth, strength, and humor. His subtle facial expressions give insight into the character and make you a part of his story. Jennifer Babiak, as his wife Golde, plays off Skybell with grace and ease and making them a very believable couple. They share a poignant moment during the song “Do You Love Me?” when Tevye is trying to figure out the intersection between love and obligation. I thoroughly enjoyed Lisa Fishman’s Yente. She was just added to the cast as a replacement two weeks before opening and didn’t miss a beat. Sometimes the role of Yente is played a little too over-the-top, but Fishman’s Yente made the matchmaker into a real person, and not a caricature. Bruce Sabath also played his role as Leyzer-Volf similarly, showing him as a person with real feelings and emotions.
The three couples who fall in love—Tevye’s daughters and their betrothed—are perfectly cast. Rachel Zatcoff and Ben Liebert take on the roles of the eldest daughter Tsaytl and the geeky tailor Motl with ease and charm and you find yourself rooting for them. When Drew Seigla as Perchik teaches Stephanie Lynn Mason to dance, the sheer joy on their faces and the loving glances exchanged between the two are palatable. In fact, the pair met each other during the last iteration of Fiddler, fell in love, and got married. Raquel Nobile and Michael Nigro, as Khave and Fyedke are a pleasure to watch as their relationship develops on stage. The costuming is perfect for all of the cast, but it is especially well-thought-out in terms of the couples. While the majority of the clothes are in black, white, and gray, the couples wear accents of color that match their other half: for example yellows for Hodl and Perchik and red for Khave and Fyedke. The Russians all wear touches of red, making them stand out.
The role of the Fiddler is played by a female in this version, and she serves as the emotional accompaniment to Tevye’s inner thoughts, appearing as he has his talks with God, which are beautifully set to blue lighting, setting these scenes apart. The gorgeous choreography ties the whole show together, with joyous traditional dancing and, of course, the famous bottle dance which was skillfully accomplished. Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is a wholly satisfying theatrical experience, not to be missed.
Scenic design is by Tony Award winner Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Tony Award winner Ann Hould-Ward, lighting design by Tony Award winner Peter Kaczorowski, sound design by five-time Tony Award nominee Dan Moses Schreier, and hair/wig design by two-time Drama Desk Award nominee Tom Watson. NYTF artistic director Zalmen Mlotek is musical director and conductor, with orchestrations by Larry Blank. Merete Muenter is associate director of the production, with NYTF associate artistic director Motl Didner on board as associate director and supertitle designer.
New World Stages. West 50th Street, NYC thru January 1, 2023