Review: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (New York)

by Lynn on April 9, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Broadway Theatre, New York City

Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Based on the Sholom Aleichem stories.
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreography by Hofesh Shechter
Music director and new orchestrations by Ted Sperling
Sets by Michael Yeargan
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Donald Holder
Sound by Scott Lehrer
Cast: Danny Burstein
Jessica Hecht
Adam Kantor
Karl Kenzler
Alix Korey
Samantha Massell
Melanie Moore
George Psomas
Nick Rehberger
Alexandra Silber

A beautifully moving, deeply thought production of a classic that looks at the subject matter in a new light, considering what is going on in the world.

The Story. You know the story. We are in a shtetl (small village with a mostly Jewish population) in Anatevka, Russia in 1905. Tevye is a poor Jewish dairyman. He has been married to Golde for 25 years and they have five daughters. Five! He believes in the traditions that have guided his people for centuries. He believes this is how you become a good Jew. He believes that the father decides who his daughters will marry; that marriages are arranged; that if love is involved, the daughter’s intended asks her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage; that never do you marry outside the faith. But times are changing and Tevye’s three older daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava) are challenging that tradition. They want to marry whom they wish, and for love. Sometimes it’s out of the faith even though the intended is a good, decent respectful person. At its heart Fiddler on the Roof is about love, forgiveness and resilience. But mostly love.

The Production. Director Bartlett Sher has created a production that is brimming with the pulsing life of that village. The majority share a bond because they are Jewish. There is their common good-will of people experiencing the same things: poverty, family matters, and a grudging patience when dealing with busy-bodies such as Yente the matchmaker. Rumours spread easily. There always seems to be a heightened anxiety of who said what about whom. Later, subtly, we will also realize that all is not rosy in Anatevka. There is a wariness of, and distance from, those who aren’t Jewish. And there are the police and the fear of them. It’s 1905 in Russia, all is not peaceful for Jews. It all comes out in Sher’s sobering, moving production.

The stage is bare except for a simple wood chair stage right, with a peasant cap hanging off a corner of the back of the chair. There is a grey, worn backdrop with the name “Ahatebka” framed, as if it is a railroad station sign announcing the town’s name. I assume the name as spelled is a combination English/Russian hybrid—but we assume the town is “Anatevka.”

A man appears wearing a red parka, circa now. He reads out loud from a book. He’s probably reading from “Tevye and his Daughters and other stories (or “Tevye the Dairyman”) by Sholem Aleichem, on whose stories Fiddler on the Roof is based. The man reading sets up the scene. He is Danny Burstein who, when he takes off the parka, will reveal he’s in costume as Tevye, the dairyman; shirt, vest, pants, cap and prayer shawl braids hanging down from under his shirt.

With that we are taken back to Anatevka in 1905. In Michael Yeargan’s simple evocative set, clusters of dilapidated houses occasionally hover in the air reminiscent of a Marc Chagall painting. Tevye and Golda’s house is old and rundown. Poor people live here. Catherine Zuber’s costumes of sturdy peasant garb seem too pristine for such poverty, but she’s such a good designer I’ll chalk that up as a quibble.

Tevye is a man who has lived his life adhering to the traditions passed down to him from his father and his father’s father. He will pass those traditions to his five daughters. He thinks about what makes a good Jew. He talks to God for solace. He talks about money a lot because he doesn’t have any. But most important, he is loved and he loves. He has the respect of his village. And he has those traditions to anchor him. Indeed, traditions and the strict adherence to them are beautifully set up in the first song, “Tradition,” Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick’s (lyrics) which immediately establishes one of the themes of the show.

Danny Burstein’s performance as Tevye bursts with good will and love for his family; irreverence at times when conversing with God, and resilience. When his carthorse becomes lame, Tevye pulls the wagon himself, resigned. He endures and he’s representative of a people who endure.

His short-tempered, efficient, hard-working wife Golde, rules that home but gives the impression it’s all for her husband. Hmmmmm. Jessica Hecht is a whirlwind of industry, always working, always planning, arranging, cooking, smoothing things out for her family. She has no time for small talk….”Do I love you?” Such a question after 25 years after she has washed for him and cooked for him and the other things a dutiful wife does. “I suppose I do.” Irritated at first but then almost like a revelation. Lovely.

A quibble: In one of the scenes two beds are rolled out, one for Tevye and one for Golde, I think in the scene in which an apparition comes to Tevye. Why two beds? I know that Golde sings in “Do I Love You?” that she has shared her bed with him. Does that mean she has one and so does Tevye and when they wanted to ‘get closer’ he came over to her bed? Just wondering.

Hofesh Shechter, the celebrated Israeli-British choreographer, has choreographed the show with a tip of the hat to the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, but also with his own sense of panache. His choreography for “Tradition” for the “Papa,” arms in the air, bent at the elbow, feet stamping, confident, proud and commanding, says it all for the men who think they are the head of the family. The women who are “The Mama” are demure, graceful, quiet, even obsequious. I am struck at how graceful the women are. Of course the ironic joke here, if Golde is any indication, is that the Mama rules the family. The sons and the daughters follow next in the same manner as their Papas and Mamas.

When Tzeitel (a feisty Alexandra Silber) marries her love, Motel the tailor (a timid but eventually confident Adam Kantor), there is a wedding of course full of tradition. And there is “The Bottle Dance.” The men in their fine black coats, pants, and formal black hats, come out en masse with a bottle in their hands. The point of the dance is that they have to do a slow, muscular dance in unison, while balancing the bottles in a groove in their hats. The music is particularly dramatic. The dance fits the music perfectly. Three men line up mid-stage, parallel to the front of the stage. The man in the middle slowly sinks to his knees, the bottle balanced in his hat on his head. His right leg shoots straight out on an angle to the side, about 45 degrees. His other leg is still bent under him. The heel of the right leg ‘digs’ into the stage, anchoring him, as that outstretched leg bends slowly bringing the body towards the heel. The men on either side of our ‘squatting fellah’ put their hands under his arms and drag him in the direction of his bending leg, giving the impression of sliding along the floor more than what the leg could have done. Then the squatting fellah turns to the left and repeats the movement with his left leg, shooting out straight on a 45 degree angle. The heel anchors the leg, pulls the body forward and is also helped again by the guys on either side of him. The image is so fluid, graceful and dramatic, my jaw dropped.

Then the full component of young men at the wedding spread across the stage, bottles placed in unison on their hats to balance. On the downbeat of the music they sink to the floor and put one arm around their neighbour on the right and the other arm around their neighbour on the left. On another dramatic note their right legs shoot out on the angle; the heels dig in and in unison the bodies slide forward on the floor until the right leg is bent. They turn and shoot their left legs out, heels dug, then they slide forward

What is there about this dance that grips me, squeezes my heart and just makes me weep when I hear the first note of music? Jerome Robbins and now Hofesh Shechter know what grabs an audience. A chorus line of high kickers will always get a round of applause. The high kicking line is just a cliché and the audience falls for it every time. That’s fine. The choreography of The Bottle Dance goes further. What’s going on here is art. And that’s worth getting teary about.

Needless to say, the songs have stood the test of time, and many weddings. Of the sixteen songs, nine are classics. They come from a time in musical theatre history in which songs do have a life of their own. As musicals have developed into something deeper (Hello Sondheim) and the music and lyrics are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the show and are not meant to be taken on their own it’s more common to have one or two songs that can stand the test of their own time. That’s not a bad thing, just an observation. But in musical theatre lore, Fiddler on the Roof stands above most musicals.

As for the direction by Bartlett Sher, there is always such detail in it that reveals so much more about a show you think you know inside and out. The Constable is the Russian police presence in the village. He seems affable enough. He likes Tevye. Tevye is polite but wary. Sher illustrates this in a small, quiet, devastating scene. The Constable leisurely appears behind Tevye, walking toward him. Tevye is unaware of his presence until he senses the Constable behind him. Tevye turns, sees him, flinches and automatically scurries forward a few steps to ‘escape’ him. Then he relaxes when he realizes this might send the wrong message. But that reaction stuns me. So small a bit of business and so resounding in illuminating how frightening that police presence is. I put my hand over my mouth. How come my hand over my mouth makes me weepy.

The Constable is coming to tell Tevye that there will be a bit of a ‘dust-up’ in the village. Tevye interprets this with terror, “You mean a pogrom!” The Constable tries to assure him that it is not. But of course it is, and it takes place at Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding.

Tevye can grudgingly accept the changing world of his daughters, but he cannot and will not accept that Chava, his beloved daughter, wants to marry a non-Jew, Fyedka. He will not accept it and considers her dead. When the Jews must leave the village in three days, Chava and Fyedka try to get through to him. They are leaving too. They can’t stay there when people are so cruel. Tevye ignores her, tying up their goods in the cart. Golde kisses her good-bye, not once, but 10 times in quick succession. It’s a parting of painful heartache. Tevye sees it and quietly says “God be with you” as she has almost walked off, and he continues to tie the goods to his cart. When he can’t stand it any longer he rushes after her as well, but she is gone and this crushes him. He bends over in grief. Bartlett Sher ramping up the emotion of a scene. The whole village them walks around the stage from upstage to downstage, in a circle, pulling their carts, hauling their goods, leaving their homes. The man in the red parka appears again watching them, the book opened at the last page, the end of the story, or so it seems. He closes the book gently and hugs it to his chest. He has a creased look on his face—grief? Emotion? Whatever it is, it’s so moving.

Fiddler on the Roof rips the heart out of you. Bartlett Sher raises that emotional level Is this sentimental? Fine.

Comment. Ok, why would I see such a chestnut of a show, beloved notwithstanding? Because Bartlett Sher directed it. He has such a gift for getting to the heart of a show. He always goes deeper into a work if it’s well known and realizes deeper meanings. Fiddler on the Roof is a case in point. By framing it with a modern man in a parka at the beginning and end of a story that takes place in 1907, Sher is showing the relevance of it in 2016. This is a refugee story, a story of immigrants driven from their homes, forced to find ‘home’ elsewhere, even in a different country with relatives they barely know. I think we can appreciate a story like that in 2016. Loved this production.

Opened: December 20, 2015.
I saw it: April 1, 2016.
Closes: open ended
Cast: 31, 18 men, 13 women
Running Time: 3 hours.

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