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Broadway Reviews

Fiddler on the Roof

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 20, 2005

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: Harvey Fierstein, Andrea Martin. Also starring,Stephen Lee Anderson, John Cariani, Nick Danielson, Philip Hoffman, Patrick Heusinger, Sally Murphy, Tricia Paoluccio, Robert Petkoff, Laura Shoop, David Wohl, Yusef Bulos, Chris Ghelfi, Betsy Hogg, Mark Lotito, Tom Titone, Alison Walla, David Best, Ward Billeisen, Randy Bobish, Melissa Bohon, Enrique Brown, Kristin Carbone, Racehl Coloff, Sean Curley, Rita Harvey, Joy Hermalyn, Keith Kühl, Jeff Lewis, Roger Rosen, David Rossmer, Haviland Stillwell, Barbara Tirrell, Michael Tommer, Franics Toumbakaris, Ann Van Cleave, Bruce Winant, Gustavo Wons, Adam Zotovich, 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

After almost two years of making questionable contributions to the American musical theatre, British director David Leveaux has done the impossible: He's injected some soul into his lifeless revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Unfortunately, he's done it in a way that will make you less apt to shout "To life!" than "Hey mama, welcome to the shtetl!"

Those praying that the casting of Harvey Fierstein in the classic Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein musical would result in a coup of the Antonio Banderas or Hugh Jackman variety, or even a semi-coup of the Bernadette Peters-in-Gypsy or Brooke Shields-in-Wonderful-Town kind, will find their hopes dashed from the new star's initial utterances. A rough bray, like fingernails on a chalkboard, accompanies the lines, "A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no?" Oh yes.

It's hard to believe that the Fierstein now so camping up the pre-Revolution Russian town of Anatevka is the same one who delivered such a sensitive, ingratiating performance as Edna Turnblad in 2002's Hairspray. Of course, that show strives for cartoon realism, and plays as equal parts social commentary and contemporary fairy tale, so Fierstein's unique vocal stylings and over-the-top delivery could easily be harnessed into a touching portrait of a suffering Baltimore hausfrau.

Here, though, Fierstein's playing it straight. And after just a few moments of his tuneless croaking as Tevye, you'll be longing for the sedate sanity of Alfred Molina's milquetoast milkman. Though Molina, who originated Tevye in this revival, had nothing to recommend him, his lack of musical-comedy know-how and stage presence seem, in retrospect, almost endearing compared to the unstoppable, unfocused juggernaut Fierstein presents.

His performance is at once overpowering and underwhelming, and - punctuated with that gravel-in-a-popcorn-popper voice and dance moves resembling a malfunctioning pile driver - proves every bit as inappropriate as Molina's, if in a different way. Fierstein, however, isn't completely determined to avoid laughs; he finds many, even if a fair number (particularly in his unbelievable, and nearly unlistenable, "If I Were a Rich Man") aren't always intentional. But the quieter and more somber spoken scenes have no real dramatic bite, and often play more like parodies of sentiment than honest feelings.

At least all this results in a Fiddler on the Roof as unpredictable now as it must have been when it premiered on Broadway in 1964. Never knowing what Fierstein will do next, or how he will do it, provides a sense of urgency otherwise absent from Leveaux's lethargic staging. Granted, it doesn't help you care much about Tevye's vanishing way of life, as represented by his three daughters (Sally Murphy, Laura Shoop, Tricia Paoluccio) who unwittingly endanger long-held traditions by marrying for love. But it's something.

So is Andrea Martin, a happily adept replacement for Randy Graff as Tevye's wife, Golde. If Martin's vocals are often a bit uncertain, she naturally nails every laugh line and provides a much-needed maternal grounding force opposite Fierstein's rampant unpredictability. The stark contrast between the two even suggests a real bond that gives their second-act duet "Do You Love Me?" a kind of charming comic poignancy present nowhere else in the production.

Of the rest of the cast, the best remains the brilliant Robert Petkoff, who's only grown stronger in his role of the student revolutionary Perchik; he's now even firmer of conviction, stronger of voice, and more dynamic in stage presence. His romantic interest, Hodel, is decently played by Shoop, though she needs to clean up her diction in her first song, which she articulates as "Mutchmaker." Murphy and Paoluccio remain passable but uninteresting as Hodel's sisters Tzeitel and Chava, though John Cariani is now even more caffeinated and less funny and Tzietel's paramour Motel. Nancy Opel has improved greatly as the meddling matchmaker Yente, but still can't do a thing with Bock and Harnick's abortive new second-act song "Topsy-Turvy."

It's unsurprising that these problems haven't been fixed, as Leveaux likely never considered them problems in the first place. Determined to give us a Fiddler we've never seen before, he's made the show more about the flying roofs and tilting floors of Tom Pye's set and his own head-scratching conceptual contributions (why does it seem like Tevye is completely abandoning his cherished traditions in the production's final tableau?) than about communicating an important, universal story in an entertaining way.

When the production opened last February, it was besieged by complaints that it and its cast weren't Jewish enough. Those who felt that way might be appeased by Fierstein (who is of Jewish heritage), but it's difficult to imagine anyone being as miscast and damaging to this show as he is. No, the real problem with Leveaux's mounting is Leveaux: He's sapped all the vibrancy, life force, and meaning from a show that has enchanted and touched millions of theatregoers the world over for over 40 years. That's the kind of show-biz talent we can never get too little of.

At least Leveaux's mostly thwarted by Stein's moving, funny book (which still plays well, even against such overwhelming odds) and that wonderful Bock-Harnick score. It's impossible not to be affected by the beauty of Hodel's aching "Far From the Home I Love" or "Sunrise, Sunset," or the dances Jonathan Butterell has adapted from Jerome Robbins's originals, particularly in the lengthy (and almost perfect) first-act wedding finale.

But Fiddler on the Roof, for its countless virtues, isn't foolproof. Simply doing a classic piece isn't enough; one must do it justice. Fierstein and Leveaux are proving every night that they are not, so this Fiddler remains hopelessly and painfully out of tune.

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