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Broadway Reviews

Fiddler on the Roof

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 26, 2004

Fiddler on the Roof Based on the Sholom Aleichem stories by special permission of Arnold Perl. Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Choreography by and Original New York Stage Production Directed by Jerome Robbins. Originally Produced on the New York Stage by Harold Prince. Directed by David Leveaux. Musical staging by Jonathan Butterell. Music director Kevin Stites. Set design by Tom Pye. Costume design by Vicki Mortimer. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair and wig design by David Brian Brown. Music Coordinator Michael Keller. Orchestrations by Don Walker. Additional orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Cast: Alfred Molina, Randy Graff, Stephen Lee Anderson, David Ayers, John Cariani, Nick Danielson, Philip Hoffman, Laura Michelle Kelly, Sally Murphy, Tricia Paoluccio, Robert Petkoff, David Wohl, Yusef Bulos, Molly Ephraim, Chris Ghelfi, Mark Lotito, Lea Michele, Stephen Ward Billeisen, Randy Bobish, Melissa Bohon, Enrique Brown, Sean Curley, Rita Harvey, Joy Hermalyn, Keith Kühl, Gina Lamparella, Jeff Lewis, Craig Ramsay, Roger Rosen, David Rossmer, Jonathan Sharp, Haviland Stillwell, Barbara Tirrell, Tom Titone, Michael Tommer, Francis Toumbakaaris, Marsha Waterbury, Bruce Winant, Gustavo Wons, and Nancy Opel.
Theatre: Minskoff Theatre, 200 West 45th Street
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Ticket price: $100, $75, and $40
Tickets: Ticketmaster

It doesn't take long for the revival of the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, which just opened at the Minskoff, to find its defining statement. It's spoken by the philosophizing milkman Tevye at the end of the first song, "Tradition": "Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!" Even with a few of those traditions visible onstage, this production is mighty shaky.

To find the reason, one need look no further than director David Leveaux. Yes, the man who thought Nine was about Lucite chairs, flying sheets, and splashing water also believes Fiddler on the Roof is about tilting floors, flying roofs, and the inveterate sorrow of humanity. Apparently, the idea that this show is about people experiencing tumultuous emotional and cultural changes didn't occur to him.

This makes watching the Sholom Aleichem-derived story about Tevye (Alfred Molina), his wife Golde (Randy Graff), and their daughters in the pre-revolution Russian town of Anatevka an often bewildering experience. One can't help but love the classic Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick score, with such great songs as "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" and "Sunrise, Sunset," or Joseph Stein's insightful, moving book, yet almost nothing about this production evokes real feelings of any sort.

Take the show's third standard, "If I Were a Rich Man." Traditionally a showpiece (and showstopper) for Tevye, it taps into hopes and dreams to which nearly everyone can relate. Yet, Molina delivers it without excitement as a surface-level musing, not an innate desire. The lack of any energy or conviction and the song's throw-away staging - complete with generic, indicative hand gestures - suggest the number was given little attention.

But the song is vital; its sentiment drives Tevye throughout much of the show. It leads him to arrange a marriage for his first daughter Tzeitel (Sally Murphy) to the wealthy butcher Lazar Wolf (David Wohl), which he must undo when Tzeitel professes her love for the poor tailor, Motel (John Cariani). When Tevye's second daughter, Hodel (Laura Michelle Kelly), falls in love with the poor student revolutionary Perchik (Robert Petkoff), Tevye loses his dream yet again. But Molina's reactions barely register. As each of his daughters break with their culture's long-held traditions, from the mild (Tzeitel marrying for love) to the severe (Chava, played by Tricia Paoluccio, falling in love with a non-Jewish Russian), there's no sense of loss. It never substantially matters to Molina or Graff, so it never matters to us.

Leveaux was apparently far more concerned with the physical production. Tom Pye's set exquisitely depicts a wasteland filled with barren trees (pay particular attention to the one growing through the tavern floor), and they're solemnly lit by Brian MacDevitt. The costumes created by Vicki Mortimer don't suggest poverty for Tevye, wealth for Lazar Wolf, or define specific characters in any other noticeable ways. The only exception is Tevye's elaborately conceived ruse to undo Tzeitel's engagement, a recounted dream that finds the ensemble emerging in Chagall-inspired costumes. It's visually appealing but meaningless; the wind machines, flying ladders and people, and the stage tilting at a precarious angle also ensure that no stray feelings encroach on this moment.

Nor do the actors, for the most part. Molina's an incessantly bland Tevye, singing passably, but with a distracting habit of looking at his feet while dancing. The normally wonderful Graff makes Golde a one-note matron less appropriate to Russia than Manhattan's Upper West Side. Nancy Opel, a late replacement for Barbara Barrie as the matchmaker Yente, finds quite a few laughs, but makes little impression overall. Murphy, Kelly, and Paoluccio sing well enough, but are mostly lacking in personality; Cariani, unduly spastic and modern, might do better without his.

The surprising standout is Petkoff, not only period appropriate but a magnetic onstage presence. He's dynamic throughout, whether toasting Tevye's good fortune during "To Life" (usually terrific but otherwise vapid here) or causing a commotion at Tzeitel's wedding by encouraging men and women to dance together. He's the one actor who makes you care about his character, and if his singing is a trifle underpowered, in every other way he gives the production's only Tony-caliber performance.

Last, but hardly least, is the choreography - many of Jerome Robbins's original dances have been recreated by Jonathan Butterell. This proves a dual-edged sword: Robbins's brilliant dances only serve to underscore how uninspired most of the rest of this production is. Moments like "Tradition" or the wedding bottle dance shine brightly, but while it's exciting when the men make it through the dance without dropping their precariously balanced bottles, that happens in college productions.

Magnificent choreography energetically performed means nothing without the feelings that set up those moments; when "Tradition" and "To Life" lack any sort of joy, something's seriously amiss. Transitions from speech to singing or dance are not arbitrary and should not be treated as such. Songs and dances not truthfully emerging from emotions, regardless of how technically polished they are, don't work in this show.

Neither does Bock and Harnick's new song, "Topsy-Turvy" for Yente and two other women. It doesn't advance the plot or Yente's character in any significant way, it just replaces "The Rumor" and makes the second act seem even drearier, offering no indication of the sense of lightness the people of Anatevka can find in their lives even at the darkest times.

Leveaux's demanding that one mediocre song be replaced by an equally mediocre one, and his choice to steep the production so fully in darkness and sadness, strongly suggest he doesn't understand or respect the material that has proven a cherished classic for almost 40 years. While that may be standard revival policy these days, Fiddler on the Roof should never - as Leveaux's production does - impress the eyes and ears while leaving the heart utterly cold.

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