'Fiddler on the Roof': Theater Review

Fiddler on the Roof Production Still - H 2015
Joan Marcus

Fiddler on the Roof Production Still - H 2015

What a pleasure to see a classic infused with fresh talent, intelligence and emotional vitality.

Director Bartlett Sher's reputation for enriching the dramatic texture of great American musicals is further cemented by this stirring revival starring Danny Burstein.

It's a sad reality that at virtually any point in history, somewhere on the planet, persecuted peoples are being driven from their homelands as they seek fundamental dignity for themselves and better lives for their children. That eternal theme of forced emigration acquires powerful cumulative pathos in Bartlett Sher's beautiful revival of Fiddler on the Roof, led by a performance of aching humanity from Danny Burstein as the dairyman Tevye. The 1964 musical's rousing prologue stresses the value of "Tradition," and this staging honors that imperative while at the same time providing a robust connective thread between the story and our world a century later.

No less than, say, A Chorus Line, any production of Fiddler has to contend with the long shadow of the indelible original, which ran almost eight years, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and produced by Harold Prince. A facsimile of that staging returned three times to Broadway over the next decades, and only director David Leveaux's 2004 revival with Alfred Molina has attempted to put a new stamp on the show, albeit while retaining Robbins' iconic choreography.

Some complained that Leveaux's subdued Chekhovian production dimmed the show's exuberant spirit and de-emphasized the ethnic specificity of this inextricably Jewish yet resoundingly universal musical. But neither of those charges can fairly be leveled at Sher's staging, which mines every dramatic nuance and every ounce of character-based humor in Joseph Stein's indestructible book, adapted from Sholom Aleichem's stories.

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Burstein's performance admittedly is more measured than the familiar and still appealing Topol model of burly physicality and bear-like masculinity. (I can't compare with the original Tevye, Zero Mostel.) But Burstein does larger-than-life by subtler means, which is nowhere more evident than in his full command of the character in "If I Were a Rich Man." The faintest trace of the Borscht Belt in his humor and his wryly self-dramatizing dialogues with God also provides a further bridge in the director’s vision of the story as one that still has relevance to contemporary American life.

Tevye, the poor father of five daughters approaching marriage with their own alarmingly independent ideas about love, is unusual among canonical musical-theater roles in that it's built largely around a man's intimate conversations with himself. Burstein is exceptional in those soliloquies, as he weighs the pros and cons of each challenging situation, struggling with his own stubborn traditionalist views and yet always coming around to compassionate wisdom and a profound sense of what's right. The unforced warmth of his big-hearted performance could heat the whole theater through winter.

The other key factor fueling this production's galvanizing life force and vivid sense of Jewish identity is also its most radical departure from the original: the explosive, loose-limbed movement of Israeli modern dance choreographer Hofesh Schecter.

The dancing is simply extraordinary, starting with the entry of the four principal groups — the papas, mamas, sons and daughters — each with its own distinctive style yet fusing together into a joyous sense of community in "Tradition," one of the all-time great opening numbers. There are nods to Robbins, most explicitly in the thrilling bottle dance during the wedding of Tevye's eldest daughter Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber) to her childhood sweetheart, the tailor Motel (Adam Kantor). But unlike most Broadway choreography, this has the sensation of raw, almost primitive spontaneity. The fingers are splayed, always reaching, while the upper limbs are flung about, often inelegantly, in strong movement both exultant and earthbound. It's dance as pure, instinctual expression of both the individual and the collective.

Sher (whose sumptuous revivals of South Pacific and The King and I were Tony winners) has always shown meticulous attention to spatial dynamics in his blocking, and his thorough use of the vast stage here is no exception, including a passerelle built around the orchestra pit. (He used a similar structure in his terrific 2006 Met Opera directing debut with Il Barbiere di Seviglia.) That shoves the dancers out almost into the audience at times, bringing tremendous energy, for instance, when the male wedding guests dart across with their black satin coats flapping like bat wings. The ecstatic quality of the movement also makes the violence of the Cossacks' warning "demonstration," which cuts short the festivities, all the more wrenching.

Working with his regular design team, Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting), Sher has crafted a production that some might find too pretty for Anatevka, the fictional shtetl in 1905 Tsarist Russia. But the look is cleverly rooted in folklore and fairy tales, with elements of Marc Chagall (whose "violinist" paintings have often been cited as an inspiration for the musical) in Yeargan's painted backcloths and storybook village houses, frequently suspended in midair. Even the fiddler (Jesse Kovarsky) flies at one point. There's something magical about the place, as if it's being conjured in the memories of villagers long departed or from the stories they passed down.

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The production's most controversial stroke for the purists is also its very first striking stage picture, which has Burstein hatless and in a modern coat arriving at the empty, mist-shrouded Anatevka train station. Reading the opening lines from a book, he puts on a cap and removes his coat to reveal period clothing and a prayer shawl underneath, becoming Tevye as he steps into the past and leads the ensemble in "Tradition." That economical contemporary framing device is eloquent without belaboring the point, and when Burstein returns in the same modern coat in the show's final moments to complete the connection by joining the exodus of Jewish refugees, it's intensely moving. Without words, it says we're all immigrants.

The opening also shows how Holder's lighting plays with time and memory, notably later in Tevye's song "Chavaleh." His daughters appear behind a scrim as he wrestles with his sorrow over disowning Chava (Melanie Moore) for marrying outside the faith. Watching him take hold of the scrim like a curtain and forcibly consign her to his past is heartbreaking. That moment also typifies Sher's mastery as a director. He gives us a theatrical flourish while deepening our involvement in a very real story — something that might have jolted us out of it in less assured hands.

The revival owes much of its emotional heft to impeccable casting. Burstein's naturally jovial manner is well matched with the invaluable Jessica Hecht’s sober take on Tevye's careworn wife Golde, a woman mostly too preoccupied with the responsibilities of running a household and managing five daughters to permit herself even a moment of levity. That makes her hesitant display of tenderness in response to Tevye's "Do You Love Me?" all the more touching. This is a woman who shows her feelings sparingly, so her outpouring of grief when it comes is devastating. And while the rapport between husband and wife has long been defined by mild sparring, their body language together as they share moments of pain or happiness speaks volumes.

The daughters are lovely, as are their voices, first heard when Tzeitel, Chava and Hodel (Samantha Massell) sing the yearning "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," as their younger sisters look on with curiosity and apprehension about their own future. And Massell does a gorgeous job on "Far From the Home I Love," as Hodel prepares to leave them. Their suitors are equally charming: Ben Rappaport as Hodel's firebrand student, Perchik; Nick Rehberger as Chava's principled Russian gentile, Fyedka; and Kantor's Motel is particularly good, all nervous, gangly timidity until he suddenly becomes a man while standing up to Tevye, that discovery gushing forth from him in "Miracle of Miracles."

Among the villagers, Adam Dannheisser makes a wonderful Lazar Wolf, the wealthy butcher to whom Tevye hastily promises Tzeitel in marriage. His generous nature in putting aside a grudge is illustrated near the end of the show in an affecting silent gesture. And as village matchmaker Yente, Alix Korey embraces the woman and the stereotype with a comic gusto that again nods to the Catskills and contributes to Sher's century- and culture-spanning approach.

The production treats the show's traditional set pieces with the respect and sense of ceremony they demand, including the wedding, with Burstein leading a heartfelt "Sunrise, Sunset"; and the delicate "Sabbath Prayer," which amplifies the spiritual dimension as families gather around their tables. There's good reason these songs have endured for half a century; it's embedded in the sincerity of Sheldon Harnick's lyrics and the supple melodies of Jerry Bock's score, with its gentle klezmer strains, exquisitely played by a 23-piece orchestra under Ted Sperling's direction.

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The biggest set piece, of course, is "Tevye's Dream," in which he rouses Golde from sleep, fabricating a vision to convince her that Tzeitel should marry Motel and not Lazar Wolf. Sher and his designers go to town with an elaborate folkloric fantasy involving masked figures and others on stilts, again evoking Chagall, with a dash of German expressionism. It reaches a frenzied climax with the arrival of Lazar's deceased first wife, Fruma-Sarah (Jessica Vosk), a banshee careening into the scene on a towering plinth, as hilarious as she is fearsome.

The duality of humor and horror is essential to Fiddler, and as in every other aspect, this superb production captures that balance with enormous soulfulness, its juxtaposition of oppression with spiritual resilience echoed in a final eruption of wild dancing after the curtain call. The show also closes the Broadway year on a magnificent note. Regrettably, my annual top New York theater list was published before seeing this revival, so consider it an early entry for the best of 2016.

Venue: Broadway Theatre, New York
Cast: Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht, Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, Melanie Moore, Jenny Rose Baker, Hayley Feinstein, Alix Korey, Adam Kantor, Ben Rappaport, Adam Dannheisser, Michael C. Bernardi, Adam Grupper, Jeffrey Schecter, George Psomas, Lori Wilner, Jessica Vosk, Mitch Greenberg, Karl Kenzler, Nick Rehberger, Aaron Young, Jennifer Zetlan, Jesse Kovarsky, Eric Bourne, Stephen Carrasco, Eric Chambliss, Jacob Guzman, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Sarah Parker, Marla Phelan, Tess Primack
Director: Bartlett Sher
Book: Joseph Stein, based on Sholom Aleichem’s stories
Music: Jerry Bock
Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Music director and new orchestrations: Ted Sperling
Choreographer: Hofesh Schecter
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jam Theatricals, Louise Gund, Jerry Frankel, Broadway Across America, Rebecca Gold, Stephanie P. McClelland, Barbara Freitag & Co./Catherine Schreiber & Co., Greenleaf Productions, Orin Wolf, Patti Paker, Caiola Productions, Nederlander Organization, Gabrielle Palitz, Kit Seidel, TenTex Partners, Edward M. Kaufmann, Soffer/Namoff Entertainment, Healy Theatricals, Clear Channel Spectacular, Jessica Genick, Will Trice