Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Fiddler on the Roof
Review by Tim Dunleavy

You probably know that Tevye, the main character in Fiddler on the Roof, is a milkman. But did you know that Topol, the actor most identified with the role of Tevye, is a milkman too? Well, he's a different kind of milkman: He's an actor who milks every joke for all it's worth.

In his "Farewell Tour" of Fiddler on the Roof—playing this week at NJPAC's Prudential Hall in Newark, and slated to crisscross the country until the end of summer—Topol proves that, at age 73, he can still sing the show's matchless Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick score with plenty of gusto. He brings lots of authority to the role of the proud, obstinate father who clings to his traditions with all of his might. Much of that authority comes from his rich, rumbling bass-baritone, which seems practically undiminished by time.

But it's not his low-register singing that's notable about this production—it's his high-register joking. When one of Tevye's daughters pleads with him, he mimics her voice, adopting a falsetto to get a laugh—and then repeating the line two or three times to get more laughs. Then, later, he repeats the routine with another daughter. Topol prolongs nearly every joke by adding a grunt, ending the line with a rising inflection, and stroking his beard while waiting for laughter to build. I found his shtick tiresome at times, and was frustrated by the way his performance in the dramatic scenes sometimes veered from passionate to listless and back again—but the packed crowd on opening night ate it all up. Judging from the audience's reaction, this milkman really delivers.

Of course, Fiddler is far from a one-man show. Mary Stout (as the Matchmaker Yente), Bill Nolte (as the butcher Lazar Wolf) and Erik Liberman (as the nerdy tailor Motel) all have great comic delivery, and they give the show a lot of warmth. There's touching earnestness from Colby Foytik (as the student revolutionary Perchik) and Stephen Lee Andeson (as the constable). As Tevye's wife Golde, Susan Cella is so low key that she fails to make much of an impression. Rena Strober, Jamie Davis and Alison Walla sing beautifully but don't project distinctive personalities in their roles as Tevye and Golde's three oldest daughters.

Joseph Stein's book remains a marvel of dramatic construction, blending light moments with gripping ones. The story might be set in a Jewish village in Czarist Russia a century ago, but it retains its strength because its themes of parent versus child and ritual versus change remain timeless and universal.

Sammy Dallas Bayes, who directed Topol in this show on Broadway in 1990, does a solid job this time around. Bayes has replicated Jerome Robbins' original choreography, and many of the numbers, like the famous "bottle dance," are danced superbly (although the ensemble seemed rather listless in the opening number, "Tradition").

If only Bayes had been able to rein Topol in a little bit. The actor's self-indulgent comic touches are a little too much to handle at times, but he remains a genial and commanding actor. If you can get used to his excesses, you'll enjoy his performance, as well as the rest of this pretty good version of Fiddler on the Roof.

Topol first played the role of Tevye in a Tel Aviv production in 1965. In the decades since, he's not only starred in the movie version of Fiddler, he's also played the role onstage over 2,500 times. And after all these years, he still draws an adoring crowd. To paraphrase one of the show's songs, after forty-four years, it's nice to know.

Fiddler on the Roof runs through Sunday, March 15, 2009 at Prudential Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center St., Newark. Ticket prices range from $23 to $79 and may be purchased by calling (888) 466-5722, online at or in person at the box office.

Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Original New York stage production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Mr. Robbins' original choreography reproduced by Sammy Dallas Bayes
Directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes
Music Direction ... David Andrews Rogers
Scenic Design ... Steve Gilliam
Costume Design ... Tony Ray Hicks
Lighting Design ... Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz
Sound Design ... Duncan Robert Edwards

Tevye... Topol
Golde... Susan Cella
Tzeitel... Rena Strober
Hodel... Jamie Davis
Chava... Alison Walla
Shprintze... Kerry Alexander
Bielke... Julie Brooks
Yente The Matchmaker... Mary Stout
Motel The Tailor... Erik Liberman
Perchik The Student... Colby Foytik
Lazar Wolf, The Butcher... Bill Nolte
Mordcha The Innkeeper... Larry Block
Rabbi... Joel Bernstein
Mendel,The Rabbi's Son... Gary Brintz
Avram, The Bookseller... Michael J. Farina
Nachum, The Beggar... Rick Pessagno
Grandma Tzeitel... Julie Brooks
Fruma-Sarah... Sean Patrick Doyle
Constable... Stephen Lee Andeson
Fyedka... Eric Van Tielen
Sasha... Matthew Marks
Shaindel... Rebecca Hoodwin
Boris... David W. Gilleo
Rivka... Katie Babb
Mirala... Joanne Borts
Vladimir... Robbie Roby
Misha... Trevor Illingworth
The Fiddler... Arthur A. Atkinson
Tevye Standby... John Preece
Bottle Dancers: Matthew J. Kilgore, Rick Pessagno, Robbie Roby, Matthew Rossoff
Ensemble: Leslie Alexander, Katie Babb, Joanne Borts, Sean Patrick Doyle, David Enriquez, David W. Gilleo, Rebecca Hoodwin, Trevor Illingworth, Matthew J. Kilgore, T. Doyle Leverett, Matthew Marks, Robbie Roby, Matthew Rossoff, Jessica Scholl, Juliana Stefanov, Kaitlin Stilwell
Swings: David Enriquez, Juliana Stefanov

Photo: Joan Marcus

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

-- Tim Dunleavy, guest New Jersey Reviewer

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