Book by Joseph Stein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bartlett Sher
At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York. Open run.
Despite its obvious concessions to commercial Broadway fare—syrupy sentimentality, vaudevillian ethnic comedy, romance streaked with melancholy, heroic resignation—Fiddler on the Roof is a sturdy musical classic that bears repeated reimagining. Bartlett Sher’s version honours every major aspect of the musical, and though the Tevye I saw at a recent matinee (when Danny Burstein was on hiatus) lacked the serious edge and danger of a great actor, the show’s ebullience and affective power came through to a heart-stirring conclusion.
What is especially thrilling about Sher’s production is its innovative style. Of course, Tevye remains a stage incarnation of Sholem Aleichem’s fictional Jewish milkman in a fictional shtetl named Anatevka, and, of course, the Russian pogroms are a historical fact, and, of course, Tevye remains hen-pecked and anxious about the marital prospects for his five daughters and the survival of tribal tradition. And he continues to wag his finger and shake his fist at God while forever misquoting the Old Testament and struggling to see all sides of a proposition. And, of course, he is especially concerned about finding and maintaining a balance rather like a fiddler on a roof.
But his Anatevka in this version (designed by Michael Yeargan) has an abstract quality that transcends realism while, paradoxically, fortifying the all-too-human qualities of the fable. Its frame is a bare stage with a grey brick wall at the rear and a name-sign hanging forlornly against the emptiness. Tevye, book in hand, stands in a red parka, as if he were mentally revisiting what once was his own folk story. Then he doffs his jacket, pulls out his prayer shawl from under his vest, and the emblematic fiddler (a superb Jesse Kovarsky) strikes up a solo to start the first ensemble musical number. This is the first electrifying jolt—“Tradition”—with the villagers rising as if out of the ground and advancing downstage. The sequence is almost surrealistic—as is the set design where the village is often evoked in free-floating sections of homes suspended in a sky of purple and deep blue so evocative of Chagall.
Hofesh Shechter’s choreography pays due homage to Jerome Robbins’s original but charts its own distinctive style with sinuous patterns described by twirls and upturned hands that seem to implore as well as affirm their difficult universe. “To Life” is a virtuoso piece, demarcating differences in Russian and Anatevkan physical movement. The wedding “Bottle Dance” is Robbins redux to a degree but there is a wonderful ecstasy that frames it, and there is much free-wheeling stomping, hand waving, and swaying that seem to inspire Tevye’s own light-footedness. Even the hilarious “Tevye’s Dream” has a colour and surrealistic verve not always found in other productions.
Michael Bernardi (son of Herschel, one of the most famous Broadway Tevyes) literally steps into his father’s stage boots, without quite filling the role. He has a light texture, a light voice, and a sweet innocence that make it seem as if he was moving mainly on the surface of the famous role. His comedy lacks definition because it is chiefly low key, and his lack of stage weight denies Tevye some of his edgy gravitas. Bernardi is a relatively young Tevye (though not the first of this kind) and there is a certain charm in his milkman. His formidable wife Golde is performed to a tee by equally formidable but fully human Jessica Hecht, who turns what could simply be a stereotypical shrew or spitfire into a bone-weary housewife and mother with a face that maps her anxiety and forbearance. Fierce yet poignant, Hecht is the best Golde in memory. Her duet with Bernardi’s Tevye (“Do You Love Me?”) is delicately moving.
Tevye’s daughters go through their pre-ordained comic, romantic, and dramatic paces without vocal faltering, though their acting is not of the highest quality. Ben Rappaport makes a fine Perchik, the young firebrand socialist student, and Adam Kantor a wonderfully timorous Motel, the tailor of woebegone looks, quivering fear, who can’t dive under a horseless wagon fast enough to escape Tevye’s intimidating rage. As the gossipy matchmaker Yente, Alix Korey has a flinty voice and a hard face, and she delivers her ironies with throwaway assurance.
The musical’s set pieces (especially “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset”) are performed with heart-stopping beauty, one lit by candles, the other against a painted backdrop of warm light by Donald Hodder, who washes the rear brick wall with a chilly blue-grey for the final melancholy scenes when the villagers turn into exiles, slowly leaving their homes for new worlds.