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Theatre in Review: Fiddler on the Roof (National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene/Stage 42)

Steven Skybell. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Having begun its journey last July at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a short trip from Ellis Island, this Yiddish production of the classic musical has come uptown, where it can more than hold its own. What originally came across as a solid, modestly scaled effort that drew much of its power from its choice of language and venue has matured into a Fiddler on the Roof that can stand up to any I've seen. And yes, the Yiddish dialogue and lyrics imbue it with an authenticity that, in my experience, makes it unique. (Has there ever been a more expressive language? The production provides surtitles in English and Russian, but even if you aren't that familiar with the text, I bet that you'll find that the characters' intentions come through, loud and clear.)

Steven Skybell's Tevye, always one of the production's major assets, is now officially superb, marked by an unforced lust for life -- he gets through the day, deftly turning his sorrows into comedy -- and a simple, yet profound, faith. The many passages in which he talks to God -- which, in lesser hands, can threaten to turn into pure, one-hundred-percent homogenized shtick -- radiate with authenticity: He has made the Almighty into his personal confidant, and when his daughters become impossible to handle or when a family wedding celebration is ravaged by hooligans, he isn't above gazing heavenward with a look that demands an explanation for this latest tribulation. Skybell is a fine comedian, whether staggering around the morning after, recoiling from household noises, or carefully assuming a look of terror before deceiving his wife, Golde, with the contents of a made-up dream. He brings a fresh urgency to Tevye's internal debates when he is confronted with daughters who have made unconventional matches for themselves -- and when, at long last, one of them goes too far, falling for a goy, his roar of disapproval is Biblical in its fury and followed by a wrenching grief. A gifted character actor rather than a musical theatre leading man, Skybell creates a subtly detailed, fully dimensional characterization while completely meeting the demands of the musical score.

The other cast members who impressed in the downtown production continue to do so. Jackie Hoffman's Yente, Anatevka's combination matchmaker, scold, and prophetess of doom, remains reliably hilarious, especially when picking over the contents of Golde and Tevye's kitchen, detailing her many agonies and thoroughly forgetting the point of her visit; also, check out how, when told that a young couple are old friends and playmates, her lip curls to attention, her eyes narrow into slits, and she wonders, with alarm, just what they've been playing at. She also continues to touch one's heart in the finale when, displaced and alone, she vows to get to Israel by any means possible. Stephanie Lynne Mason remains an uncommonly spirited Hodl, the daughter who falls for Pertshik, a socialist rabble-rouser. Drew Seigla, new to the cast, makes a fine sparring partner, whether brazenly engaging Hodl in a dance before the shocked community (where celebrations are segregated by sex) or nervously proposing marriage in the guise of a discussion about social welfare. The sight of Mason, a forlorn figure determined to look brave, waiting for a train to Siberia and her exiled lover, remains one of the production's most effective moments.

Another welcome newcomer is Jennifer Babiak, whose Golde is equipped with a stare that could lay waste to a row of Cossacks, as well as a stance that warns she gives as good as she gets. But everyone has upped their games over the last seven or eight months. Rachel Zatcoff's Tsaytl, Tevye's eldest daughter, has acquired some spine along with much-needed radiance, qualities she now shares with Ben Liebert as her puppyish, overly eager-to-please lover, Motl. (His rendition of "Wonder of Wonders" is an invigorating rush of joy.) Rosie Jo Neddy and Cameron Johnson -- the latter wildly vocally overqualified for his role -- remain solid as Khava, who marries out of her faith, which renders her dead to her family, and Fyedke, her good-hearted swain.

As staged on Beowulf Boritt's spare set, which consists of a series of paper drops that look like unrolled scrolls, this is the least elaborate Fiddler in memory, but the director, Joel Grey, makes a virtue of economy, often finding in a single gesture all that needs to be said: When Tsaytl and Motl's wedding is disrupted by thugs, one of them rips apart a drop on which is written a single word: Torah; the sense of defilement is horrifying. When Khava is disowned by Tevye, she is erased by the company passing by her and pushing her offstage. "Do You Love Me?," the faintly querulous duet for Tevye and Golde, is staged as intimately as a whisper, drawing its impact from the characters' subtly expressed emotions. Grey also gets incisively detailed work from his actors: Tevye nervously takes the extended hand of a Russian inviting him to dance; Tevye, backing away from an impertinent offspring, makes guttural chortling noises, indicating that he can't believe his ears; Golde, crying out for a lost child, is silenced by her husband's hand on her mouth.

Stas Kmiec, the choreographer, retains some of Jerome Robbins' inventions, including the stunning bottle dance, but in its best moments, his work has a wild vigor all its own. "To Life," in which Tevye strikes a marriage bargain with the butcher Leyzer-Volf (a fine Bruce Sabath), explodes with energy, supplanted by tension when a group of young Russians joins in; the wedding celebration continues to all but leap off the stage. The dance section of "Khavele" continues to be a bit earthbound for my taste, but for the most part his work is honorable and often exciting, especially in "The Dream," a comic nightmare dominated by the eight-foot-tall shade of Golde's vengeful grandmother Frume-Sore.

Boritt's set is given a soft glow by Kaczorowski's lighting; the latter also makes fine use of footlights in "To Life," casting shadows that make the stage seem doubly crowded, and he creates a suitably noirish atmosphere for "Tevye's Dream." The costume designer, Ann Hould-Ward, finds a world of detail in plain, everyday shtetl wear. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is pleasingly natural and transparent, with discreet touches reverb in "The Dream."

Grey's handling of the musical's final scene, the diaspora of the village of Anatevka, is handled surely and without sentimentality, perhaps in the knowledge that it carries reverberations of today. A lost world is brought to life onstage, gorgeously etched and -- despite all the trouble around its edges -- bursting with gusto, but it is a few heartbeats away from being scattered to the four winds. The use of Yiddish firmly anchors this production in the old-world, yet it is surely not lost on anyone in the audience that we live in a world of refugees: Everywhere one looks these days, there are new Anatevkans looking for safe harbors. It's yet another reason that this fine production is so welcome right now. - David Barbour

(21 February 2019)

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