by JK Clarke
Since its Broadway debut in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has remained largely unchanged, and maintained its status as an emotive and poignant musical that touches the hearts of all, with both a powerful story arc and classic, catchy songs. So how does a production company put a new twist on an old favorite (and why?) without upsetting the purists? It’s a problem that Shakespeare companies face constantly. People want to see their beloved play produced the way they saw it before. To borrow from the musical itself, audiences are inexorably tied to “Tradition!” But now the good folks at The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, under the direction of Tony winning Broadway legend Joel Grey (Cabaret), have tweaked Fiddler in just such a way that it actually adds dimension: it’s being performed in Yiddish (translation by Shraga Friedman), the language the residents of the fictional Anatevka (in the Pale of Settlement in turn of the century Imperial Russia) would actually have spoken. And they pulled it off beautifully—the linguistic shift adds an unexpected note of authenticity and weight.
Based on Sholem Aleichem’s 1894 tale, “Tevye the Dairyman,” the story of Fiddler on the Roof is a slice of life in a rural Jewish shtetl in the Russian Empire some time around 1905. It’s a story that progresses from the ordinary life problems of the browbeaten milk farmer Tevye (excellently portrayed by Steven Skybell) and his five daughters who are becoming of marrying age and are breaking with tradition by selecting their own partners, rather than accepting the choice of the local matchmaker, Yente (Jackie Hoffman).
But as life’s ordinary tribulations play out—weddings are held, arguments are settled— doom creeps over the community in the form of repression, racism and, ultimately, destruction at the hands of the occupying Russians. Though some of the Cossack soldiers are unbiased—like the intellectual Fyedke (Cameron Johnson, with a wonderful singing voice and whose graceful movement betrays his training as a dancer) who has fallen for Tevye’s third daughter, Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy)—others gleefully participate in the hateful pogrom (the like of which drove thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century) ordered by Moscow, burning and destroying the town.
Fiddler on the Roof is already well established as an ideal theatrical work, from Joseph Stein’s beautifully drawn characters and plot development; to Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick’s (lyrics) classic, unforgettable (and occasionally ear-worm inducing, but not in such a bad way) songs like the hopeful “If I Were a Rich Man” (which for some reason was changed to “if I were a Rothschild,” likely for the sake of flow in the Yiddish version), to the woeful “Anatevke” to the celebratory “Tradition!” What remains is how a company and director handles this theatrical gold. And here every aspect is masterfully managed.
Yiddish Fiddler relies on, and emphasizes, personal relationships and character interactions from the very beginning. Rather than an elaborate set, the normally complex Beowulf Boritt has opted for utter simplicity: large, wrinkled brown paper banners hang from the ceiling, shrouding the orchestra and acting as a wall and hearkening scrolls of the Torah; and there is no roof from which to fiddle—tables and chairs are stacked and shifted around the stage, standing in for whatever setting is called for. The Fiddler (Lauren Jeanne Thomas) herself is enigmatic and arch-eyebrowed, entering the stage in a low, crawling stroll under a blue light seemingly whenever Tevye is faced with a dilemma or difficult circumstance. The “roof” in this case are the precarious choices life offers Tevye with increasing frequency. She ultimately serenades him as he leaves town for a new life in America.
Despite Fiddler being a “constant,” a familiar, proven work of art, especially with Jerome Robbins’ magnificent choreography left largely intact (though augmented by Stas Kmiec)—in particular a remarkable performance of the famous and breathtaking “bottle dance”— each new production is largely dependent on the exuberance of the cast. And there is so much in this one. With terrific performances by Skybell, Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), Ben Liebert (Motl), Bruce Sabath (Leyzer-Volf), Rachel Zatcoff (Tsaytl), the Rabbi (Adam B. Shapiro) and the ensemble as a whole, one is so transfixed by the action that one quickly forgets the production isn’t even in English, despite the useful supertitles on either side of the stage. It’s a Fiddler for the ages, with a major change that turns out to be minor—a new tradition that should be revisited again and again.
Fiddler on the Roof – In Yiddish. Through September 1 at Stage 42 (422 West 42nd Street, between Ninth Avenue and Dyer Street). Three hours, 15 minues with one intermission. www.fiddlernyc.com
Photos: Matthew Murphy