Danny Burstein and company in Fiddler on the Roof
(© Joan Marcus)
As Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, and Joseph Stein’s landmark musical Fiddler on the Roof enters its middle age---the 50th anniversary of the show was last year---Bartlett Sher’s splendidly funny and moving revival, which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre, clearly demonstrates why this is a piece for the ages.
The previous two Broadway outings for the tuner (a languorous 1990 revival that starred the 1971 film’s star, Topol; and David Leveaux’ 2004 intellectually heady and slightly chilly production) both allowed audiences to savor the familiar piece and its many classic songs ("If I Were a Rich Man," "Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset," etc.). At the same time, however, neither staging came close to showcasing the achievement of Stein’s book or the Bock-Harnick score.
That's not the case with this new Fiddler. It charms, amuses, and stirs. Often in the same moment.
Sher’s production, which begins with a much-discussed and powerfully effective framing device that has the show’s Tevye, Danny Burstein, standing onstage in a contemporary winter coat. He reads the opening lines of the show from an old book, and slowly the show segues back to early twentieth century Russia. As it does Burstein removes his coat, and Tevye, joins the company as the shtetl Anetevka comes into focus.
Sher’s conceit for the opening (as well as the closing (when Burstein reappears in the jacket) deftly communicates that the story of Fiddler somehow belongs to us all regardless of our heritage. Simultaneously, this understated device makes the parallels between events of a century ago and ones today clear. Once the residents of Antevka are forced to relocate, they wonder, much like refugees today, where they will head.
As the musical moves forward, these notions rest gently underneath the action, and the joys of the production become abundantly apparent, starting with Burstein’s masterful performance as milkman Tevye. Burstein makes this man, who, even in most difficult situations, can somehow recognize both sides of a dilemma, an imminently likable, funny guy: a mensch extraordinaire. At the same time, Burstein’s performance—also beautifully sung—brims with fury, bewilderment, and eventually resigned (and understanding) acceptance as Tevye watches the traditions he has known and found comfort in challenged and crumble.
It’s a turn that’s beautifully matched and complemented by Jessica Hecht’s more acid, but nonetheless appealing, performance as Tevye’s pragmatic wife Golde. Hecht, in her first outing in a Broadway musical after years in non-musicals, uses her formidable talents to deliver a terrifically nuanced performance as this woman hardened by a rough existence raising five daughters. Ultimately a certain gentleness creeps into Hecht’s performance, particularly when she and Burstein tentatively hold hands after Tevye and Golde have answered the musical question, “Do You Love Me?,” and then It’s rough not to smile and maybe get a little misty.
Tevye and Golde are, of course, having to watch as their three eldest daughters leave the nest (none with husbands of their parents chose), and in these roles, Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, and Melanie Moore all deliver spirited and individualized turns as young women falling in love and coming into their own. As their respective beaus, Adam Kantor, Ben Rappaport, and Nick Rehberger are just as terrific in bringing to life these brash young men at the dawn of a new age.
Fine supporting performances come from Alix Korey as the tireless and seeming unwindable matchmaker Yenta; Adam Dann heisser as Lazer Wolf, the gruff butcher to whom Tevye initially promises his eldest daughter; and Karl Kenzler, who makes the imposing figure of the Christian constable simultaneously menacing and self-effacing.
As audiences have come to expect from Sher’s productions, this Fiddler looks extraordinary. Michael Yeargan’s sparse scenic design strikingly evokes the time and place while also making it look as if a wonderful set of period illustrations have sprung to life on stage. Helping to achieve this effect are both Donald Holder’s sensitive lighting design and Catherine Zuber’s meticulously designed costumes.
Of course, original director-choreographer Jerome Robbins looms large over any production of Fiddler on the Roof, and certain dances he devised, replicated throughout the years in both Broadway and other productions, are probably ingrained in theatergoers’ retinas and psyches. For this staging, Hoffesh Shechter refers and uses certain moments from Robbins’ work while also creating new sequences.
It all combines to make this Fiddler on the Roof one that, for today, seems as if it is somehow definitive. Of course, as with all classics, such a claim will change and evolve over time as other artists put their own stamps on it.
---- Andy Propst
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