When it opened more than 50 years ago at the Imperial Theatre, Fiddler on the Roof received tremendous critical and audience acclaim. The sweeping musical starred Zero Mostel as Tevye, a poor milkman in turn-of-the-century Russia struggling to find a balance between his religious beliefs and changing times. (Theater geeks may also appreciate that the original cast also featured Bea Arthur, Burt Convey, and Austin Pendleton.)
Fiddler won nine Tony Awards (and a tenth in 1972 for becoming the longest-running musical at the time) with direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins and produced by Hal Prince. It was a brief return to the Golden Age of Broadway. Nominated for four Tony Awards throughout his career, Fiddler was book writer Joseph Stein’s only win. For young writers looking for a blueprint to successfully structure a traditional book musical, look no further than this seminal work. The polishing cloth has come out once again. Staged with humor and humanity, this Fiddler on the Roof redefines tradition.
Bartlett Sher (The King and I, South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza) directs a cast of 34, this time led by Danny Burstein (Cabaret, South Pacific, The Drowsy Chaperone) as Tevye. Burstein’s patriarch is infectiously charming, occasionally boyish, but with the gravitas needed to withstand the repercussions of his daughters’ love interests as well as the demands of his hard-edged wife, Golde (Jessica Hecht).
Burstein has plenty to work with, including a terrific sparring partner in Hecht and an ensemble of triple-threat character actors. Sher unearths the complex personalities existing in the fictional village of Anatevka, including the meddling matchmaker, Yente (Alix Korey), the newly arrived student with revolutionary ideas, Perchik (Ben Rappaport), and the lovelorn tailor, Motel (Adam Kantor) in pursuit of his eldest daughter Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), among others.
The creative team assembled to help realize Sher’s vision is mostly successful. Making his Broadway debut, choreographer Hofesh Shechter breathes new life into a work that has been stamped with Jerome Robbins’ blueprint since its inception. While traditionalists can rest assured that the bottle dance still exists in “The Wedding” sequence, much of Shecter’s work feels visceral and new, casting an athletic, thrashing energy to Jerry Bock’s score and Oran Eldor’s dance arrangements. Catherine Zuber’s costumes affectively set the tone for the bleak Russian landscape with a colorful reprieve during “Tevye’s Dream.”
Unfortunately, Michael Yeargan’s minimalist scenic design feels unnecessarily utilitarian in this otherwise splendid production. It’s been noted that Boris Aronson’s original set designs were inspired by the work of Jewish modernist Marc Chagall, and while that visual reference might not fit Sher’s concept, this production could use an innovative jolt, though Donald Holder’s lighting design makes the best of it.
There was much said when Fiddler on the Roof opened in 1964 in regards to its Jewish identity and how it might (or might not) resonate with audiences. Sher frames this production in a contemporary context, implying not so subtly that the diaspora of the Jewish people in late 19th century Russia is not so different than today’s struggles of Syrians and other persecuted populations looking for a peaceful land to call home. It is a haunting reminder that unless societies are willing to change and work toward peaceful co-existence, history is destined to repeat itself.
Here’s what the other critics are saying:
“…As directed by Bartlett Sher with his customary sensitivity (“The King and I,” “South Pacific”), this multihued staging moves to a heart-stopping conclusion. It’s impossible to watch the people of Tevye’s town, Anatevka, marching toward their unknown destinies in the shadow of a threatened pogrom without thinking of the thousands of families fleeing violence in the Middle East and elsewhere today.” The New York Times
“Performances are very good, as is the lively dancing choreographed by Hofesh Schechter that taps tradition and some contemporary moves. But the curious scenery often gets in the show’s way. It makes for a distracting, busy and slow-pokey production of a tightknit musical. As always, it ends on a strong note. Tevye’s acknowledgment, “God be with you,” to the disavowed Chava will change the shape of her life, her fathers’ and everyone’s. You’d have to be made of granite not to be moved to happiness and tears.” Daily News
“Registering strongest among the new perspectives of this production are the new movements and dances from Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, based on the original staging by Jerome Robbins. Schechter finds his own conceptual vocabulary, especially in its grounded and raw folkloristic moves and its uplifting hand filigree, while at the same time paying tribute to Robbins.” Variety
Fiddler on the Roof
1681 Broadway, NYC
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blogs’ editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.