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Broadway Reviews

Fiddler on the Roof

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 13, 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, Rosie O'Donnell, Christopher Perry Cardona, Patrick Heusinger, Philip Hoffman, Sally Murphy, Tricia Paoluccio, Richard Poe, Laura Shoop, Paul Anthony Stewart, Michael Therriault, David Wohl, George Bartenieff, Neal Benari, Hannah DelMonte, Chris Ghelfi, Jason Lacayo, Alison Walla, Jennifer Babiak, Randy Bobish, Shane Braddock, Enrique Brown, Kristin Carbone, Dana Lynn Caruso, Rachel Coloff, Craig D'Amico, Joy Hermalyn, Mitchell Jarvis, Jeff Lewis, Alphonse Paolillo, Roger Rosen, Daniel Rudin, Haviland Stillwell, Michael Tommer, Francis Toumbakaris, Ann Van Cleave, Robert Wersinger, Lori Wilner, 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

When Rosie O'Donnell last starred in a Broadway musical, she lumbered about the stage of the Richard Rodgers as the Cat in the Hat in Seussical. The feisty feline's trademark top hat and O'Donnell's game attitude couldn't mask how unequipped she was for the role's modest demands - but the cheering throngs of her fans in the audience couldn't care less.

All that's changed now that she's in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof is her headwear. But for all the difference it makes, she might as well still wear that red-and-white-striped stovepipe instead of her current head scarf - it would provide a glimmer of vibrancy and color that this production has needed since opening in February 2004. Of course, the only color of interest to the producers is green, and O'Donnell has proven experience generating plenty of that for any show she doesn't produce herself.

Lest you consider that a taboo subject, it's unavoidable here. O'Donnell wasn't hired for her appropriateness for her role - she's not appropriate for any stage role that requires any combination of acting, singing, and dancing. Dress her in a grey jacket and striped hat and call her a cat, or dress her as an itinerant Upper West Side lunch lady and call her Golde, the results are the same: She'll barely bop with the music in group dance numbers, she'll shout like she's at a Knicks game when the mood strikes, and she won't convince you for a moment that she's anyone but Rosie O'Donnell.

Which means she fits right into this frostbitten Fiddler. Give director David Leveaux points for consistency, if nothing else - O'Donnell is as unmoving, unfunny, and generally unmusical as everyone and everything else on the Minskoff stage. And playing opposite the increasingly bizarre Harvey Fierstein - whose Tevye the milkman (Golde's husband) has developed more camp than the theater's previous tenant, Dance of the Vampires - she even seems oddly down to earth.

This production, however, has never needed more grounding; since its inception, it's had too much. The book (Joseph Stein) and the score (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) should soar through the rafters, sear the heart, and reflect universal truths about the dissolution of some cultures and the creation of others. And this all must be steeped in the grand Broadway tradition that allows the songs, speeches, and dances to feel at once emotionally oversized and a snug, comfortable fit. Without that tradition of love and life, it's impossible to make sense of a story of people who thrive on both.

By stripping away these qualities, Leveaux has made the show look like a vandalized exhibit from a Siberian museum. His casting of Fierstein as Tevye, who tries to maintain his faith and family as both are assaulted by the forces of change, might have once seemed a way to correct that, to allow a legitimate Broadway star to energize an enervated environment. Energize it he did, but not in the right ways: Fierstein's jackhammer-on-concrete voice made parodies of his songs, and his grotesque line readings perilously promoted his own persona at the expense of his character.

Time has only worsened matters: He now hops through the show on a pogo shtick, looking and sounding like a caricature of a caricature of himself. What happened to the flamboyance-free Fierstein who, just three years ago, embodied overweight housewife Edna Turnblad in Hairspray with such convincing, convivial warmth? What made her more real to him than Tevye? We may never know; Fierstein has now forgotten that bigger isn't always better, and does everything possible to make the show about him, about his uniquely vocalized guttural utterances, about his own ability to carry the show.

At least Fierstein displays a personality, however inappropriate. The same can't be easily said for his castmates, who - old or new - are in the advanced stages of longrunitis. The original performers still with the company have lost what punch they might have had early on; most of the new performers are pale imitations of generally pale originals. The exceptions are Richard Poe as a quietly menacing Constable, and Michael Therriault as a refreshingly human Motel the tailor, but when supporting actors so outshine the stars, something is seriously amiss.

That something remains Leveaux, as clueless a director of American musicals (and, judging by his Glass Menagerie, American plays) as has crossed the Atlantic of late: No Fiddler should ever be as unaffecting as this one is. His new ideas (trees in taverns, little boys running wild, and so on) only detract from a work that has needed no additional elucidation for 41 years. For everyone else, it's always spoken for itself.

Even here, it still does somewhat: The dances (adapted by Jonathan Butterell from the Jerome Robbins originals) still work, the score (under Kevin Stites's musical direction) remains tuneful and captivating, and the book is one of musical theatre's strongest. But Fiddler, for all its virtues, still needs a vital central performance, and this revival hasn't had one in either Fierstein or his disaffected predecessor, Alfred Molina.

Molina may be gone, but his presence remains in O'Donnell, whose lack of basic musical-comedy skills and enthusiasm and awareness for what happens around her makes her Molina's (and Leveaux's) spiritual heir. You can even begin to understand another reason she might have been hired: to replace Fierstein. She'd certainly sell tickets, and I'm not sure she'd be worse than who we've had so far; then again, I thought that of Fierstein once upon a time.

Regardless, O'Donnell and Fierstein likely won't have many problems keeping the production afloat until its slated January 8 closing. Artistically, though, it's already sunk - who would suspect that even a captain as inept as the one at work here could make such an indestructible show so unable to tread water?

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