Fiddler on the Roof: In Revival—Again!
by Nancy Salz, December, 2015
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Joseph Stein
Direction by Bartlett Sher
Choreography by Hofesh Shechter
Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan
Costume Design by Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design by Donald Holder
Music Direction and New Orchestrations by Ted Sperling
With Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht and Jenny Rose Baker, Michael Bernardi, Adam Danheisser, Adam Kantor, Karl Kenzler, Alix Korey, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, Ben Rappaport, Nick Rehberger, Alexandra Silber, Jessica Vosk, Aaron Young, Jennifer Zetlan, Hayley Feinstein, Mitch Greenberg, Adam Grupper, Lori Wilner
Why would anyone want to attend yet another revival of Fiddler on the Roof? Since its premiere in 1964 it has had five major Broadway revivals and who knows how many regional theatre, school and amateur productions. Millions of us have seen this show or its film version at least once.
So—you want to know why go again? I’ll tell you why.
This isn’t just any revival. It’s Fiddler on the Roof, the moving, forever-relevant story of Tevye, his family and their lives in the impoverished Russian village of Anatevka during the early 20th century. As Tevye struggles to retain his Jewish traditions, everything he holds dear is threatened by changing values and the czar’s troops. Even his own daughters (“I have five daughters,” he repeatedly reminds us) want to make their own marriage choices. Little by little Tevye’s way-of-life and that of all the Jews of Anatevka becomes more precarious—“as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
Then, too, there’s the gorgeous score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick: The poignant “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Do You Love Me” and the funny and lovable “If I Were A Rich Man,” to name just three. Thankfully the performers are backed by a 22-piece orchestra, large by Broadway standards, under the direction of the supremely talented Ted Sperling, who also created new orchestrations.
You want another reason? I’ll give you big one: Barlett Sher, the director. He must truly love golden-age musical theatre because he treats his revivals—South Pacific, The King and I to name two—with such great respect and passion. The New York Times reported that Sher invited a rabbi to lead the cast in a Sabbath dinner and another rabbinical scholar to immerse them in Jewish cultural history. This revival, which I saw in a late preview, is even more moving than one might remember. There were few dry eyes during the finale.
Sher, known for his innovation, has also created a number of memorable moments—for example, the opening. It takes place in an empty railroad station in the present day with only an old chair with a hat on it and a hanging faded sign with the town’s name, Anatevka, in Cyrillic. We hear the sound of a train coming then going, bypassing the old village. As Tevye begins the prologue to the song “Tradition,” a flashback begins. A fiddler playing a violin is slowly flown down into the scene as a house with a large roof slides in under him. Tevye, removes his modern-day parka, covers his head with his hat and joins the past.
Another memorable moment occurs when the cast joins Tevye on the virtually empty stage. Instead of dancing in from the wings as Jerome Robbins directed them in the original production, the townspeople first appear from the back of the stage climbing stairs that begin below. We hear them singing. We see their faces and then their costumed bodies as they sing and dance to the song “Tradition.” Suddenly Anatevka comes to life much the way the town of Brigadoon did when it was discovered by two American hunters.
To the song “Sabbath Prayer,” Sher has Tevye, his wife Goldie and his family light candles at the Sabbath table in their home. Behind them is another family also lighting candles. And behind them another family. Sher has captured the importance and depth of religion in Anatevka.
You want more? How about exciting dancing. Most of the choreography, by Hoffesh Shechter, is new although quotes of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography shine through. Shechter studied dance in Israel and was a member of that country’s Batsheva Dance Company. It shows. There is more foot stomping, more athleticism and a major Jewish folk influence in the dances. They are earthy and strong.
And now to the cast—and the question on everyone’s mind: Is Danny Burstein the new, definitive Tevye? Time will tell. Burstein, who was such a cut-up as Luther Billis in South Pacific, has been tamed by Sher for Fiddler. Burstein is funny, when funny is called for. But he also brings an important and serious pathos to the role of the poor, hard-working and lovable milkman. Many previous revivals have fallen into the trap of “shtick,” funny business for its own sake. There is no “shtick” in this Fiddler. Sher and Burstein have made Tevye a real man, not a caricature. Does Tevye shake his belly in “If I were a Rich Man?” Of course, but not overly. In fact, I wanted a bit more. But I liked Burstein’s and Sher’s interpretation of the role.
Jessica Hecht’s Goldie is perfect. She is angry from the depths of her being. She is brittle. She is bossy and a tower of strength for the whole family. Tevye’s three oldest daughters—Tzeitle (Alexandra Silber), Hodel (Samantha Massell) and Chava, (Melanie Moore)—all sang and acted beautifully. Their love interests—Motel the Tailor (Adam Kantor), Perchik, the radical teacher (Ben Rappaport) and as Fyedka, a Christian soldier (Nick Rehberger)—were also excellent.
Yente the Matchmaker was played with show-stopping merriment by (Ms.) Alix Korey.
So, what’s not to like? Just about the only thing is the set design by Michael Yeargan, who also did the set design for The King and I. The design for Fiddler is not as sparse as that for The King and I, thank goodness, But throughout much of the show, the main backdrop and the sides were the same white brick used at the opening railroad station. Why? I cannot figure out how white brick and early 20th century Russia relate unless it’s to remind us that we’re in flashback. A quibble in a way because the stylized scenery worked. I always knew where I was.
So… should you go to Fiddler again? Certainly. If you love this show, you’ll relive the songs, the dancing, the performances. They’re all there—and a little more Jewish than the previous Broadway revival, which was criticized for not being Jewish enough. This Fiddler is terrific. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll applaud. You’ll have a marvelous time. As Yente would say: “Right? Of course right!”