A True Miracle of Miracles – The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s (NYTF) Fiddler Oifn Darch
EXTENDED AGAIN THRU NOVEMBER 10!
By Myra Chanin
For starters, let me tell you that if you haven’t seen or gotten tickets for this Fiddler, get them before they’re completely sold out. I just put my money where my mouth is and bought seats for two different August performances so I can see this Fiddler again and again before it’s gone because I found it so special.
Not only do you not have to understand Yiddish to love this production – the supertitles are terrific and you know everything they feel from the actors’ body language and the tone of their voices — you don’t have to speak Yiddish to be in it. Only three cast members do. Everyone else learned their lines phonetically, syllable by syllable, yet pronounce the Yiddish words so flawlessly, that I, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, couldn’t tell which were who.
How is this Fiddler Oifn Darch different from all other Fiddlers? It’s more respectful, honorable and down to earth than any other Fiddler I’ve seen. No worries. It’s still very funny, but the jokes are less dependent on shtick and more character-based.
Fiddler Oifn Darch is a masterpiece, created by many who all deserve credit where, why and to whom it’s due. First, there’s the great Jewish writer, Sholom Aleichem who based his most enduring creation, Tevye, on a drayman/teamster turned dairyman he met during his travels in the Ukraine. Then there’s Jerry Bock, the composer whose Eastern-European Jewish melodies nostalgically recall the history of a people. Jerome Robbins choreography recreated folk dances that were disappearing. But the most crucial contributor was Shraga Friedman for his subtle revisions for Joseph Stein’s original script and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics – “If I were a Rich Man,” became “If I were Rothschild,” – which reveal the effect of modern life on the shtetl mindset.
Tony-winner Beowulf Boritt’s sets were elegantly modest floor-to-ceiling parchment banners. The one with the Hebrew word Torah printed on it was ripped during the first act pogrom and reappeared stitched back together when the second act began befitting Anatevka’s poverty. Stas Kmiec’s musical staging and choreography honored Jerome Robbins’ original template and paid honor to generations gone or destroyed by keeping their celebrations alive.
Zalmen Mlotek, NYTF artistic Director and musical director of this production, deserves three cheers. His persistent, unrelenting, unremitting efforts have transformed this organization into a respected-by-all year-round performing arts center. His splendid 12-piece orchestra (13 including him on piano) under his baton give Larry Bland’s adaptations of Don Walker orchestrations the zip and vim they deserve.
But most of all, this Fiddler is the astonishing, incredible, phenomenal, mind-blowing, wonderful, wondrous, touching and memorable work of director Joel Grey, whose father, Mickey Katz, was the bandleader and parodist who wrote Yiddish spoofs of American hits like “Kiss of Meyer” for “Kiss of Fire.”
Grey’s direction gave the play a noticeable fullness and power in which Tevye’s dream of being wealthy expresses hints of repressed anger. The lighting of sabbath candles exude the sweetness I remember feeling watching my grandmother’s prayers. The harmonies are exceptional. The dances, particularly when they involve small groups, are subtle, intimate and personal. The pogrom is more violent and frightening via offstage noises and cries than it is when it’s visible. The shy suitor becomes brave and passionate, holding on to hope beyond his fears. The boldness amid the fragility of existence, those kinds of reconciliation of opposites came from imaginative restraint of the every-award-winning superstar Joel Grey, who treated Fiddler as if it were a Chekhov drama, with no need for a distracting star, but with all roles being necessary and equal.
The orchestra concludes Jerry Bock’s sprightly overture, when a man in his late 30’s or in a prayer shawl vest and a kippah appears on stage shlepping a cart normally pulled by his horse. He looks at the audience briefly before complaining to the Almighty. OMG! Can this be Tevye? It’s Steven Skybell’s Tevye! If there are any more at home like him, I’m packing my bags and moving to Anatevke! Tevye’s married, and what’s more he’s a faithful, decent, honorable Jewish husband and the father of five daughters, who understands that only tradition insures the survival of his community and that without tradition, their continuity would be as precarious as the balance of a fiddler on the roof.
Slowly, the entire cast of 26 appears one at a time but connected in a line on stage to sing and dance and explain what tradition expects and delivers to its adherents in the most upright and stately way. All of the actors are wonderful, but Jackie Hoffman deserves a special commendation for letting her own interior Yenta loose in Battery Park.
It’s next to impossible not to shed a tear during this production. Even my hard-hearted companion left the theater with tears inching down his cheeks.
Photos: Victor Nechay / ProperPix
Fiddler Oifn Darch will be performed until September 2, 2018 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, New York, NY
Two different but interesting discussions are scheduled for 6:30 pm on Wednesday nights August 8 ($5) with Harvard University’s Ruth Wisse and on August 22 ($10) performed by Bob Spiotto.