Practically a bare stage. A lone wooden chair is downstage, on the left. A single sign hangs suspended from the sky. Its writing is old fashioned, somehow exotic, but also somehow sad. Anatevka it proclaims. A bearded, middle-aged man wanders onto the stage, clutching a book, a well-read tome that could be a bible, a fairy tale compilation, or just a very good read.
Another figure appears. A fiddler, wearing a purple frock-coat that feels simultaneously modern and period. He starts plucking out a melody, a tentative, plaintive melody that cracks the silence open. Suddenly, where there was inertia, a fusty feel in the air, now there is…life.
The man starts to read from the book. They are words which are very familiar but not “In the beginning” or “Once upon a time”. What seem like ghosts, certainly images from the past, appear in significant numbers at the back of the stage. A one-dimensional representation of a modest country dwelling comes and goes. The fiddler is on the move, playing more compulsively.
The bearded man unzips his red parka and leaves it, the only sense of bright colour anywhere on the stage, hung over the back of the lone chair. He turns, faces the silhouettes behind him, his smile turns to a grimace and then back to a smile. Sort of. Then, with a single word, he launches into the character of a middle aged Russian Jew, a milkman with five daughters: Tradition.
This is Fiddler On The Roof, Bartlett Sher’s revival/re-imaging of the classic Broadway hit from Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics), Joseph Stein (Music) and Jerry Bock (Book), now playing at the capacious Broadway Theatre. There has never been a Fiddler On The Roof quite like this. It is tempestuous, miraculous, beautiful and incredibly touching (there was not even the hint of a dry eye anywhere around me in the completely full auditorium, although not everyone might have been crying for the same reason). It walks that tightrope between modernity, relevance, and simple effective story-telling carefully, occasionally feeling like there might be a catastrophic slip, but it is always compelling and often exhilarating.
World affairs make Fiddler On The Roof more “relevant” than perhaps it ever has been. In too many places, people are fleeing oppressive regimes, seeking new homes. Tyrannical oppression and obliteration of the “not-like-us” is everywhere, whether it be women, homosexuals, or religious minorities that are the subject of unreasoning rage and aggression. Brave people give up their lives to make important political change occur, while others find their worlds upended indiscriminately. Loud voices clamour for traditional values to be maintained, without considering what those values originally meant or what cost is involved in adhering to them. Self-interest is valued higher than community.
All of these issues are sewn into the prayer shawls of Fiddler On The Roof. One of the great virtues of the work is that it deals with serious and important matters in an entertaining, apparently homespun and gentle way. Sher’s purpose with this version seems to be to harden the edges, bring out the brutality, make the sentimentality astringent, and to underline the issues. It makes perfect sense and it certainly provides a whole new lease of life for a show that has long been loved, and often written off as trivial.
It is certainly the most authentically Jewish version of Fiddler On The Roof I have ever seen. In substantial part, the extraordinary, uplifting and occasionally sexy choreography from Hofesh Shechter is a fundamental part of this sensibility. Tradition has always been one of the greatest opening numbers of all time, setting up, as it does, all the major characters and themes, but also exalting in its singular exuberance and joy.
But in the hands of Shechter and Sher, Tradition breaks with the Jerome Robbins traditions of this show, and, heresy though it may be to some, improves the effectiveness of the number immeasurably. Each of the four groups who present themselves – the Papas, the Mamas, The Sons, The Daughters – do so distinctively and with a sparkling, honest exultation in their roles in the family. Never before have The Sons been so boyish, The Daughters so girlish. And they achieve this while underlying the tradition which underpins their lives, enthusiastically, respectfully, fabulously.
This is true, too, of the other big, set pieces: To Life!,Tevye’s Dream, Sunrise, Sunset and The Wedding. Each has special magic here, propelled by the dynamic sense of movement which distinguishes and unifies. The bottle dance is quite extraordinary, more because of the moment in history it evokes than the precision of ram-rod backs and balancing bottles, but also given the almost Elastic Man properties of the legs in action as part of the routine. To Life!is infectiously intoxicating in every way, the sense of masculine camaraderie vital and intense, the movement and action incessant.
By contrast, but just as intensely felt, the stillness and solemnity of Sunrise, Sunset clutches at one’s heart. Ritual and sincerity rolled into a ball of pleasure, and then followed by the exuberance and rule breaking that occurs in The Wedding when Perchik insists that Hodel dance with him – and what a strange, wonderful dance it was. Shechter’s work is detailed and sublime, and the cast execute his steps with a spontaneous conviction that is just glorious.
Tevye’s Dream is, relatively speaking, a subdued affair, but that matched entirely the spirit and purpose of the number. Tevye’s plan is to convince his wife, Golde, to permit their eldest daughter to marry the man she loves, rather than the choice proposed by Yenta, the village matchmaker. He is not trying to terrify Golde into submission. So, the use of ritual masks and menacing shadow spirits suits the purpose for this Golde. It’s not as scary or electrifying as some previous stagings have been, but it suited the mood of this production and these characters perfectly.
The other great departure here is that Sher obviously does not see Fiddler On The Roof as essentially a one man show. Tevye is important, but not everything. Very great care and attention is given to the supporting characters, especially the younger ones. Adam Kantor is perfection as a nervous, nerdy Motel, with a great panache for physical comedy. He sings marvellously and there is no doubting his adoration for Alexandra Silber’s Tzeitel. For her part, Silber is everything and a little bit more – the effort she puts into conveying that she is her mother’s daughter is superb and the sense of the sibling bond created with her four sisters, adorable. Together, Kantor and Silber are really something.
Samantha Massell gets the best song of the evening, Far From The Home I Love, and delivers it gorgeously, but what is most striking about her Hodel is how she details the process of her falling in love with the student stranger, Perchik. As played by Ben Rappaport, Perchik is a kind of intellectual pirate, with more swash and buckle than anything else. He pushes the arrogant side of Perchik’s ideological stance, but finds clever ways to soften the edges. The scenes where he convinces Hodel to dance with him and his rapturous, highly sensual reaction to her agreement to marry him provide the heart that underscores the inevitable change that the couple personifies. Massell and Rappaport are a great pairing.
As the third daughter to cause Tevye and Golde angst, Melanie Moore’s quiet, understated and painfully honest Chava is another joy. She makes Chava so fragile, so tender that Tevye’s decision to disown her for marrying outside their faith is shown starkly, coldly as cruel and unusual punishment for love. Nick Rehberger’s stoic, amply and gentle Fyedka aids and abets in this task superbly.
Other characters are also played in new and refreshing ways. Lazar Wolf comes across as a lonely and slightly sharp old butcher, but his final act of generosity is powerful indeed. Adam Dannheisser ensures that this Lazar Wolf has real depth. Alix Korey is delicious as a dry, dour Dolly Levi with a fast and frank tongue. Adam Gruper’s slightly dotty Rabbi is a good foil for many characters. There is excellent character work throughout, which comes into clear focus when the almost unbearable to endure Anatevka occurs; such a finely detailed paean of woe.
Jessica Hecht makes Golde the living, beating heart of this Anatevka. In a rich and vivid performance, Hecht has many highs. She carefully lays out the day to day difficulties the poor family endures, but she also shows the strength that love and faith bring to their home. Her Golde is more frank than sarcastic, cajoling rather than belligerent, and realistic rather than rude. Her poignant rendition of Do I Love You? is incredibly touching and her maternal instincts are ever present, constantly underscoring her every thought and word.
Hecht makes Danny Burstein’s Tevye’s work as well as it does, lending him the benefit of her loyalty. Their believability as a couple is critical to the success of the production as a whole and to Burstein’s performance particularly. For Burstein does not play Tevye in the Zero Mostel/Topol mould; rather, his Tevye is a much angrier version, slightly sour with his lot and irritated and outraged by his God. Playfulness and humility is often replaced by angst and soft fury. If the spirit of Beatrice Arthur is anywhere in this production, it is in Burstein’s Tevye.
This is not to say that Burstein fails at the task of Tevye; he doesn’t. Sher has set the task for Tevye here somewhat differently than in the past. The sparkle, the joy, the empathy with the narrative mostly comes from reactions to Tevye and his intransigence or response to change rather than from Teyve himself. There is less twinkle in Tevye’s eye and more turmoil. Teyve becomes much more of an ensemble character, albeit the leading one, and, as a result the entire experience of Fiddler On The Roof is richer. It’s not a virtuoso turn in the role, but it is unique.
Michael Yeargan’s fascinating set design is constantly changing, playing up the fable aspects of the story as well as the historical ones. Everything is simple, uncluttered, genial and easily understandable – much like the behaviour of the residents of Anatevka. There is a story book charm to the look of the show as well as a filmic sensibility. Catherine Zuber’s exquisitely plain costumes are exactly right for the design and when Donald Holder’s sensitive and captivating lighting is added, the overall look and feel of the production is lustrous.
Ted Sperling provides excellent new orchestrations and presides over the musical aspects of the production with unrivalled excellence. The score fairly races along for the most part, so the more sedate passages have extra impact. The top notch orchestra plays flawlessly and for the most part the vocal work from the cast is absolutely unbeatable. Harmonies are given faultless attention and the sounds made individually and in choruses are full bodied and radiant to the ear. As a whole, I can’t recall hearing a better sung Fiddler On The Roof than this one. Different approaches in songs such as Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Now I Have Everything and The Rumor (often cut) really work.
At just under three hours, Sher’s Fiddler On The Roof cuts no corners. It is not clear what, if anything, the framing of the show with the device of the modern day book reader brings to the table. It seems like a case of hammering a peanut with a ten tonne brick. Sher’s energising of the narrative does the job of establishing modern day relevance and interest; the red parka and the book are superfluous.
Burstein’s character as the red parka wearing book reader is more benign and gentle than his Tevye. If there was no need for differentiation, perhaps his Tevye could have been less angry, and the production that much more intensely pleasurable. Either way, Reed Luplau’s enigmatic, perceptive, occasionally flying, and (mostly) constantly fiddling, purple-coated Fiddler was an undisputed wonder of wonders.