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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
at Broadway Theater

STANDING ON TRADITION
By BERNARD CARRAGHER

  Ph: Joan Marcus

Fiddler on the Roof is back at the Broadway Theater on Broadway and 53rd Street. At the ripe age of 52, it is still a superior musical. The original Fiddler debuted in 1964 and ran 3,242 performances, and in 1972 it became that era’s longest-running show. There have been five revivals of Fiddler, and this incarnation by director Bartlett Sher is an evocative production for our times. He has put together a large, talented ensemble cast that delivers Joseph Stein’s fine retelling of Sholem Aleichem’s humorous stories with lovely, familiar songs by Jerry Bock and appropriately zesty lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. There is a full cycle of dances by Hofesh Schechter, some new, some inspired by Fiddler’s original director-choreographer Jerome Robbins.
 
There are no stars in Sher’s production. No larger-than-life behemoth performances like Zero Mostel gave when he first played Tevye in the show’s original production, or Chaim Topol, who played the role in the 1971 movie version. Here we have Danny Burstein as the milkman Tevye, who is an expert musical actor, but not a star. Sher takes this fact into consideration by presenting Burstein in the musical's first scene not as Tevye, but rather with an everyman approach: He is an American tourist alone on stage wearing a red parka, on a visit to the Russian village of Anatevka. He begins reading Aleichem’s book about the town: “A fiddler on the roof sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple time without breaking his neck. How do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you, in a word – tradition!” Mr. Burstein takes off his parka and he suddenly becomes Tevye, the milkman, as the stage fills with all the ordinary citizens of Anatevka singing the musical's opening number, “Tradition!”
 
One of the special things about Fiddler is that you don’t watchit as a spectator, you become a participant. You are drawn into it, thanks mainly to Stein's carefully crafted book. You live intently with Tevye and the citizens of Aleichem’s tiny Russian village. It’s a bustling place, full of life, gossip, and little and big sorrows.
 
Like all his neighbors, Tevye is bound by traditions that are not, in 1905 Russia, likely to break away. But Tevye’s daughters (three are of marriage age) and their suitors force him to face the new times with good humor and eventually love.
 
Tevye gets little help in solving the dilemma that any man with five daughters and no son is likely to have. He does get assistance from God, or at any rate he consults Him. Nobody has ever complained to a friend in heaven at the top of his voice. He shouts up to the sky about his poverty, “I realize it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no honor either.” The inference is obvious. God had better do something about it.
 
His wife Golde (Jessica Hecht) has a sharp tongue, but she is prudent and reasonable. When Golde appears during one of his heavenly colloquies, Tevye has to break it off. But he hasn’t finished, and he lets the Lord know, “I’ll talk to you later.”
 
As Tevye, Burstein carries on the dialogues between earth and heaven with a mixture of respect and rebellion, with enormous warmth and humor. He and God are on familiar terms and any theologian watching would sure be persuaded that they are both privately proud of their friendship.
 
Tevy doesn't always consult the Lord in crisis. When three of his daughters, one after another, reject his commands and insist on marrying men they love, he falls back to the word “tradition,” which the musical is all about.
 
Things are changing in Anatevka, when his oldest daughter Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber) marries a local tailor, Motel (Adam Kantor). The police infiltrate the wedding and break up the celebration, threatening them, and will ultimately order all the village citizens to sell their homes and get out of town.
 
Sher has recently helmed new versions of American musical classics like South Pacific and The King and I. Here he uses the same set and costume designers, and though both are talented artists they seem to have a conventional approach to the material. I missed the originals: the colorful Chagal-fantasy approach of Boris Aronson's Anatevka settings and Patricia Zipprodt's vibrant take on Russian peasant clothes of the period.
 
What is most touching about Sher's production is the immediacy he brings to Fiddler. In its last scene, when Tevya and Golde are off to America with their two unmarried daughters, following their neighbors who are also leaving Anatevka, it recalls last fall’s images of the miles of Syrians swarming through the roads of Europe all searching for a new home. The emotion of that scene had an electric effect on the audience the evening I saw the show. You could feel the welling of their reaction rolling out over the theatergoers in attendance.

 


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