After a sold-out and much-extended run at its lower Manhattan home base, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s heart-tugging revival of Fiddler on the Roof has trekked north from Anatevke-in-the-Battery to the New World of Outer Times Square, if not quite to Broadway. It’s resettled into the Shubert Organization’s 499-seat off-Broadway house on West 42nd Street.
Coming so soon after Bartlett Sher’s Broadway revival, whose year-long run ended in December 2016, another Fiddler might seem like overkill. But this Fiddler has a few things going for it that no other New York production could boast – beginning with the 1964 production starring Zero Mostel as Tevye, impoverished dairy man in frequent, fervent colloquy with Elohaynu, and Maria Karnilova as Golde, his short-suffering wife and mother of their five daughters.
Most important, it’s performed in Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles, from a 1964 adaptation by Shraga Friedman. It’s cannily and rhythmically, if not literally, true to the characters and predicaments of the Sholem Aleichem tales on which Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick built their folk musical. And so, in what has become the best known of Friedman’s changes, Tevye’s dream of wealth, “If I Were a Rich Man,” becomes “Ven Ikhbin a Rotshild” – “If I Were a Rothschild.” In the same song, Harnick’s “When you’re rich, they think you really know,” becomes the more colloquial, “Ver s’iz raykh farshtayt khazones ykh!” – “Whoever’s rich understands the cantor’s singing too!”
Then there’s the production, staged by Joel Grey, with musical staging by Stas Kmîec, music direction by Zalman Mlotek for an expanded klezmer band, and adaptations by Larry Blank of Don Walker’s original orchestrations. That’s a mouthful, but the dish is simplicity itself: a “poor theater” staging with few props; a tattered backdrop that looks like torn grocery-bag paper emblazoned with one word, TORAH; and a company of actors (most of whom were coached in the Yiddish for this show) who exude a raffish yet searching commitment to the material.
Leading them are Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak, repeating as Tevye and Golde, along with Broadway favorite Jackie Hoffman as the matchmaker, Yente. Flicking his tzitzit, flashing his palms heavenward, shrugging his shoulders in defeat, Skybell doesn’t indulge in the Hasidic stylings of his predecessors, instead conveying the paradoxes of a man who deeply wants to believe in a God he knows has abandoned him.
When daughter Tzeitel’s wedding is concluded with a pogrom, Tevye cries to God, “You gave my daughter Tsaytl a really nice dowry for her wedding. Was that necessary?”he reveals a kinship with Stephen Kumalo, the Zulu elder who sings, “Sometimes it seems maybe God's gone away / Forgetting his promise and the word he'd say / And we're lost out here in the stars…” from Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars.
All this conspires to offer a Fiddler unlike any you’ve seen before and promising, no matter how many times you’ve heard that luminous score, a fresh and joyful revisit. The further pluses are several gorgeous voices, especially those of Babiak and Golde’s elder daughters, sung by Rachel Zatcoff (Tsatyl), Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl) and Rosie Jo Neddy (Khave).
If you’re a parent you’ll need tissues for “Sunrise, Sunset.” If you went to Jewish camp, you’ll sway with “Sabbath Prayer.” And if you’re human, you’ll weep over “Far from the Home I Love” and “Anatevke.”
I object to Dan Moses Schreier’s over-amplification, which frequently wrecks the intimate scale of the proceedings, and a similar grossness of gesture seems to have afflicted moments in the dance numbers, as well as those of the Fiddler herself (Lauren Jeanne Thomas). I wish they’d tone it down. After all, for God’s sakes, we know what’s going on here.