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Fiddler on the Roof

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 20, 2015

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. Original Broadway production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Originally produced on the New York stage by Harold Prince. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Choreographed by Hofesh Shechter. Music direction and new orchestrations by Ted Sperling. Set design by Michael Yeargan. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Danny Burstein and Jessica Hecht, with Jenny Rose Baker, Adam Dannheiser, Hayley Feinstein, Mitch Greenberg, Adam Kantor, Karl Kenzler, Alix Korey, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, Ben Rappaport, Nick Rehberger, Alexandra Silber, Julie Benko, Michael C. Bernardi, Eric Bourne, Stephen Carrasco, Eric Chambliss, Austin Goodwin, Adam Grupper, Jacob Guzman, Jesse Kovarsky, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Matt Moisey, Sarah Parker, Marla Phelan, Tess Primack, George Psomas, Jeffrey Schecter, Jessica Vosk, Silvia Vrskova, Lori Wilner, Jonathan Royse Windham, Aaron Young, Jennifer Setlan.
Theatre: Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street
Tickets: Telecharge

Danny Burstein with the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Even the darkest, most tragic musicals needn't be dour. In fact, isn't it better when they aren't? Musical theatre's ability to not only unlock but amplify emotions through channeled and targeted zeal is what makes it both unique and essentially American. A splash of show-biz may not be able to solve every problem, but it will make understanding every problem easier. That's why serious mountings of serious shows making serious statements so often fall into serious trouble: Forget the shine beneath the shadow, and the singing and dancing just isn't going to make a lot of sense. Sadly, Bartlett Sher's new revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which just opened at the Broadway, proves this all too well.

Joseph Stein (book), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Jerry Bock (music) based their 1964 musical on the works of Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, weaving together stories about the eternally put-upon milkman Tevye and his five daughters into a fable about shifting political and religious viewpoints in the United States of the era. Tevye and his wife, Golde, devout Jews living in the tiny Russian shtetl of Anatevka in the earliest 1900s, watch their daughters one by one turn their backs on the old ways by marrying for love: the oldest, Tzeitel, to a poor tailor named Motel, of whom Tevye does not approve as a mate; the second, Hodel, to the student revolutionary Perchik, without even seeking his permission; and the third, Chava, to the Russian Christian Fyedka.

Of course, the plot details have always mattered less than their presentation, which in its Main Stem–meets–klezmer writing and staging has since its inception been justifiably classic. The opener, "Tradition," establishes the fragile balance and social complexities of this vital community, as told through music, dance, and humor. Tevye famously moons for wealth of his own in "If I Were a Rich Man," celebrates arranging Tzeitel's marriage to an aging butcher by ripping up a bar in "To Life," and honors Tzeitel's wishes by conceiving an elaborate dream sequence to pressing Golde's belief buttons. And everything else, from the children's songs to the Act I wedding finale to the passing of gossip and then the eventual passing of the Anatevkans themselves, is treated as if following a single wave breaking across the shores of history—a lush metaphor that the original production's visionary director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins, extravagantly exploited in his staging (which has been replicated many times since).

Danny Burstein with Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, Jessica Hecht, Jenny Rose Baker, and Hayley Feinstein
Photo by Joan Marcus

Such approaches are not where Sher typically excels; he tends to down rather than up (see his current take on The King and I at Lincoln Center, for example). That works well enough in the dialogue scenes, admittedly among the very best I've seen in any Fiddler on the Roof. The angst of Tevye (Danny Burstein) grows and crests, from everyday annoyance in dealing with the sharp-tongued Golde (Jessica Hecht) to the rage and even fear that comes with letting go of Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), Hodel (Samantha Massell), and Chava (Melanie Moore) in relatively short order. And I've never seen anyone make the relationships between those daughters richer and more interconnected than Sher does here. And, overall, this mounting comes closer to capturing the show's proper spirit than David Leveaux's from 2004.

But when the music starts, Sher and his choreographer, Hofesh Shechter (whose dances are vaguely based on Robbins's), make sure any and all energy and feeling evaporate. "Tradition" is some soulless piffle about moving members of the cast behind and in front of sliding wall panels, not a slice-of-life dissection of the inhabitants of a close-knit town. The daughters' "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," is defined by an opening sob session and slowed-down tempos, before progressing into an angry, disinterested, subtext-free staging poking at their surface-level woes. The second-act comedy number, "The Rumor," has been so scrambled and muddied that it says nothing about the Anatevkan's daily traditions; in fact, it plays as though everyone involved was embarrassed by it.

Bigger dance numbers fare worse still. "To Life" is a muted jumble that lacks any drunken dynamism and fails at what it needs to do most: clarify the tensions between the Anatevkans and the Russians at a critical juncture. "Tevye's Dream" is a shapeless parade of Chagall-inspired zombies minus any suspense or verve. Even the wedding dance is pulled back, with the bottle dancers (one of whom has apparently been instructed to intentionally drop his bottle, but not leave the dance—tsk, tsk) looking like they're executing their chores obligatorily rather than fulfilling their celebratory responsibility to their kin. Even the portentous bit that follows, with Perchik and Hodel making a scene by defying custom and dancing together, is oddly treated as just as unimportant.

A cut-down orchestra, flaccid new dance arrangements (by Oran Eldor), and uninspired new orchestrations (by musical director Ted Sperling) further denude the show musically. Michael Yeargan's scenic design is lazy, too, a lot of his typical empty-stage shtick occasionally ornamented by a few tracked and floating buildings that look to have been based on drawings and paintings of the era. It's not made clear, however, why "Tradition" has no scenery, why the climactic scene takes place in a barn, or why when we first see the Fiddler (Jesse Kovarsky, not great at miming the violin) he's flying on wires like some Petrovich Pan. Catherine Zuber's making-the-best-of-it-rag costumes and Donald Holder's lights are considerably better.

What's not are most of the performances, which are uncomfortably in line with Sher's depressive vision. Burstein should have been an ideal Tevye, but he hasn't been allowed to find his innate larger-than-life joy; he just seems so unhappy, unconvinced, and unconvincing that you don't even believe in the snoozing, usually surefire "If I Were a Rich Man" that Tevye cares about being rich. If Burstein nails the anger in the second act, he shrugs off the plentiful comedy and slogs through everything else to the point that you'd never know this was written as a star comedy role (for Zero Mostel).

Silber and Moore are similarly indistinct and forgettable, though Massell does decently by the fraught train station scene and her anguished solo there, "Far From the Home I Love." Alix Korey is uncharacteristically bland and disengaged as the matchmaker Yente, what should be another solid comedy showcase part. (Beatrice Arthur created her.) Adam Kantor, on the other hand, is a delight as Motel, and charts the young man's growth from nebbish to mensch in beautifully articulated and recognizable terms; and Ben Rappaport brings attractive notes of reluctant understatement to Perchik. (Their songs, respectively "Wonder of Wonders" and "Now I Have Everything" are treated as throwaways, but one suspects they aren't to blame.)

The evening's best performance comes from a truly unexpected source: Hecht. She has, as far as I can tell, no professional experience in musicals (and she's obviously not a highly trained singer), but she makes Golde into a towering archetypal figure: the ur–Jewish mother, with all the sweep and scope she needs to register as such. Whether carping about Tevye, fretting over her children, or rebuilding her soul once it's been hollowed out, this Golde is a woman who thinks and acts big, because that's what her life demands.

That's the musical theatre ethos; instead of being wrong, Hecht's elevating rather than razing her character brings this Fiddler on the Roof as close as it gets to being right. Sher was more focused on making his mark, by way of a framing device, with a modern-day refugee reading a book—by Tevye? By Aleichem? There's no clue anyone involved knows for sure—that wrenches the action pointlessly into the present day. But Fiddler on the Roof is timeless enough on its own when it's allowed to be more than the sum of its parts, and not less. Hecht gets that instinctively. It's a shame Sher doesn't.

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