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Theatre in Review: Fiddler on the Roof (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene)

Steven Skybell, Mary Illes. Photo: Victor Nechay / ProperPix.

It is fascinating how much the context of a production can affect its impact. Joel Grey's revival of Fiddler on the Roof has its ups and downs -- more of the former than the latter, I hasten to add -- but experiencing it in Yiddish, in a production at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, makes for a singularly powerful experience: It is both a homecoming of sorts and a threnody for a once-thriving culture that might be entirely lost if not for companies such as National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Under the circumstances, a deeply moving musical theatre classic acquires an even greater emotional intensity.

Shraga Friedman's Yiddish translation, which dates to 1965, was created for an Israeli production that followed the long-running Hebrew version, itself something of a watershed for Broadway musicals in that country. According to Wonder of Wonders, Alisa Solomon's magisterial history of Fiddler from short story to stage, the Yiddish edition ran only briefly, but was, nevertheless, "declared an event of national importance." In its American debut, it is accompanied by surtitles in English and Russian. I suspect that many musical-theatre fans are sufficiently familiar with Fiddler that no translation is needed, but the English titles provide illuminating, and sometimes amusing, clues about how the original text was adapted into another language. For example, "If I Were a Rich Man," in Friedman's version, is "If I Were a Rothschild." Hearing these words, one immediately realizes that even for Tevye, the milkman from the shtetl with five daughters to marry off, the famous banking family would be the gold standard for Jewish wealth. And how could Friedman know that, five years hence, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler's songwriters, would close out their legendary partnership with a musical called The Rothschilds?

Still, there's no denying that the use of Yiddish fits these characters like a bespoke set of gloves, making the little village of Anatevka seem more authentic than ever, and if Grey's staging occasionally feels a little cramped -- especially in the more exuberant musical numbers -- the fine bones of Joseph Stein's book are prominently on display. Of course, there's no Fiddler without an authoritative Tevye, and Steven Skybell, a veteran of the most recent Broadway revival (in which he played the butcher Lazar Wolf), shoulders the entire enterprise with the same strength that he hauls his character's iconic milk cart. If his Tevye isn't as earthy as, say, those of Topol or Danny Burstein, he imbues the character with an enormously thoughtful quality that is exceptionally useful when engaging in his on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand disputations with God, his family members, or himself. Skybell knows exactly where the laughs are, and in the later scenes he faces the implicit dissolution of his little family with a stoicism that proves heartbreaking. He would be a fine Tevye in any production, and Grey was smart to cast him.

It would have been a major shanda if Jackie Hoffman never played Yente, the village matchmaker, and she does not disappoint. Her mouth chiseled into a permanent frown, her eyes glaring skeptically at the fools who surround her, her voice permanently tuned to blase, she seems to have stepped out of some Jewish book of martyrs, her entire being seemingly greeting the world with the mournful question, How should I be? It is a delectable experience to see her make her way through the kitchen presided over by Golde, Tevye's wife, checking out the dishes on the stove, examining each utensil, and helping herself to various foodstuffs, while chattering about her disappointing late husband -- until, halfway out the door, she suddenly realizes she forgot to deliver the all-important news that is the point of her visit. In a musical filled with dreamers, lovers, and Talmudic debaters, she is the pin that deflates the balloon, an ice-cold bucket of water ready to be thrown on any foolishness. Even with the anachronistic pair of eyeglasses that she sports, this not a personal appearance by an accomplished comic; her final scene, in which she takes her leave of Anatevka, bravely announcing that she will start over again in Israel -- even if she has no idea how she will get there -- can raise an authentic lump in one's throat.

Among the production's trio of young lovers, the clear standouts are Stephanie Lynne Mason and Daniel Kahn as Hodl, Tevye's second daughter, and Perchik, the young revolutionary who introduces her to romance and politics. The scene in which he nervously proposes marriage, framing it entirely as a theoretical statement about social welfare, is charmingly handled; Hodl is clearly a match for Perchik and she knows it. Kahn transforms "Now I Have Everything," which often comes off as a slightly pro forma ballad, making each word seem freshly imagined. Mason gives an especially plaintive reading of the gorgeously melancholy "Far from the Home I Love," and the final image of her, seated stock still and ramrod straight, waiting for the train that will take her to Siberia and her imprisoned fiance, is one of the production's most indelible visuals.

The rest of the cast is more workmanlike. Mary Illes' Golde could be sharper and more domineering, although she improves vastly in Act II, especially when bringing the horrifying news that a daughter has run off with a goyish lover. Rosie Jo Neddy is sweet as that erring young lady, Chava, and Cameron Johnson adds a welcome shot of charisma to Fyedka, her Russian intended, although he has little opportunity to show off his stunning voice, which was a principal joy of The Golden Bride, the restored operetta produced by the company a couple of seasons ago. Rachel Zatcoff, as Tzeitel, the eldest daughter, and Ben Liebert, as Motel, the tailor who loves her, are solid without being distinctive.

Grey's direction shows a deep understanding of the community's pious way of life and he achieves some striking effects, for example the shunning of Chava, which climaxes with her being erased in a whirl of citizens of Anatevka. The musical staging, by Stas Kmiec, varies from number to number: "L'Chaim" never quite explodes with the requisite drunken energy, and the ballet attached to the number "Chaveleh" lacks a certain lyricism. The wedding sequence all but jumps off the stage, however, and Kmiec's handling of the bottle dance, even with the number of performers reduced, inevitably mesmerizes. He also makes good use of looming, menacing shadows, seen behind a drop, to accompany the prophetic vision fabricated by Tevye in the drolly staged "The Dream."

The design is calibrated to the production's smaller scale. Beowulf Boritt's set is defined by a series of paper drops that look like undone scrolls; the one in the center, which has "Torah" written on it, features prominently in the Act I finale, in which the wedding of Tzeitel and Motel is destroyed in an act of police brutality. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting eschews showy effects yet is sensitively attuned to the show's many changes of mood. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are hardly her most detailed creations, but they do the job of delineating each character's place in the world of Anatevka. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is all but invisible except for a handful of moments -- a bit of extra reinforcement on the fiddle solos, some reverb on Golde's late grandmother in "The Dream" -- that are done to calculated effect. Under Zalmen Mlotek's baton, the score sounds lovely, even with reduced orchestrations for twelve musicians.

And if, in the finale, Grey doesn't have the turntable that informed Jerome Robbins' original production, he nevertheless finds an economical -- and wrenching -- way of showing the breakup of Anatevka, as everyone scatters to the four corners of the world. It is, inevitably, a tear-stained moment, but here -- expressed in a language that so few now speak, via a theatrical form that was once a prominent feature of this city's cultural life, performed in a museum devoted to preserving the story of a people who have too often been buffeted about by the winds of history -- the effect is shattering. This is the most ambitious project undertaken by this company in recent years; it's a pleasure to report that it was well worth the gamble. -- David Barbour

(13 July 2018)

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