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A CurtainUp Review
Fiddler on the Roof
By Elyse Sommer
For this critic the team of Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (music) evoked the life and times of Sholem Aleichem's Russian Shtetl Jews with a brilliance that brought Fiddler On th Roof as close as you can get to being a perfect musical —. and win my unconditional love no matter where and with whom. That said, Danny Burstein is probably the best milkman I've ever seen and this production is quite special. And so, welcome again to another Fiddler On the Roof and congratulations to Burstein. Like seasoned Shakespearean actors waiting for the chance to put their own stamp on Hamlet or Lear, Burstein has finally gotten the chance to shine in an iconic leading role. And does he ever!
Before I continue about Burstein's terrific star turn, the rest of the company and Bartlett Sher's staging, a quick look back on previous Fiddler. . . productions.
My first Fiddler . . . as Curtainup's critic-in-chief was in 1999 at the homey MacHaydn Theater in Chatham, New York. The stage was handkerchief sized and the actors were unknown. But the audience, as well as yours truly, were enthralled with the story and the score which dished up not a few breakout show stoppers, but hit after unforgettable hit. There was a special charm to seeing the show in this theater started by two school teachers in love with musicals. The house was filled, as it often is, with three generations enjoying their first or repeat viewing of a classic musical.
British director David Leveux's 2004 Broadway revival didn't quite pass the Kosher test with its non-Jewish milkman Albert Molina, whose singing was more B than A. Still, the show exerted its usual power to charm and engage me. If Molina wasn't an ideal Teyve, having Harvey Fierstein take over when he left was likely to be an even trickier proposition. Could the gravelly voiced Fierstein really handle all those ballads. But while no Topol or Zero Mostel, Harvey was a very fine and endearing Teyve. Andrea Martin, who's currently having a grand time in a Broadway revival of Noises Off was a fine Golde. In another surprisingly okay against-the-grain bit of casting, Martin's replacement was Rosie O'Donnell.
My most recent encounter with Fiddler was just a few summers ago at Barrington Stage . Besides being a well-deserved star turn for Brad Oscar it was quite special. Like Teyve and his family and neighbors, this gutsy company has wandered from its startup in a bar to various temporary locations and finally to a beautifully restored home in Pittsfield. Julianne Boyd and her company's own journey added a unique touch of poignancy and hope to Teyve's exodus from Anatevka.
As he did with The King and I, South Pacific and Golden Boy Bartlett Sher has brought his own vision to this production and yet remained true to the show's view of tradition as ongoing, changing and ever meaningful to people of all faiths. A much buzzed about Sher-de-coup is to have Burstein make bookend appearances without his Teyve-the-milkman costume but dressed in a present day Parka apparently an American tourist perhaps being inspired by Sholem Aleichem's stories (which may be the book he's carrying) to check out his own roots. Given all the pre-opening write-ups about this, theatergoers are unlikely to be surprised by this flashback-forward opening and closing device. At any rate, the parallels between the refugees from Anatevka and the mass exodus of refugees from places like Syria make Fiddler more meaningful than ever, but they're so obvious that this framing device isn't really necessary. Still, these in and out segments are brief and handled with enough subtlety to work. Once Burstein sheds his Parka and the rest of the cast comes forward to take us into the long-ago world of Anatevka with the show's super hit, "Tradition," the magic begins.
Burstein slips with great ease and charisma into the role of the patriarch whose world is slipping away as his three oldest daughters one by one reject match-made marriages and the rumblings of overall changes threaten the entire poor but tradition-rich world of the village of the Anatevka. Unlike the more bombastic Teyve of Zero Mostel, the original Teyve, Burstein portrays the milkman's decency with an everyman menschlichkeit. He connects so fully and naturally with the audience that his comic reflections on life seem as much with them as with God. In fact, he was unfazed by an anticipated "No" from a youngster in the front row, in response to his question to God as to whether the Cossaks' disruption of his daughter's wedding was a gift he needed. (Judging from the audience at the press matinee I attended that responsive youngster proved that Broadway prices seem no deterrent for grandparents to share their memories of a beloved show with grandkids as young as six — all of whom were attentive throughout.)
The real coup-de-Sher is the stunning theatricality of that opening "Tradition" which first introduces the superb new choreography by Hofesh Shecter. While the Jerome Robbins dances have been an integral asset of all productions, the Israeli Mr. Shecter has managed to honor Robbins's work while adding his own more propulsive and potent movements. The famous bottle dance is still there and is more exciting within the context of the new choreography. The cast does full justice to these wonderful dance scenes, and Burstein unlike some Teyves past doesn't just dance like a guest at a wedding, but joins the dance scenes full tilt.
While making full use of today's ability to have set pieces slide on and off and rise up and down, Michael Yeargan's scenery is quite spare. There are just enough props to ground the more abstract look of the village houses in reality. Lighting designer Donald Holder makes the plain brick wall at the back of the stage evoke the changing moods. Catherine Zuber's period perfect costumes are in an aptly muted palette, except for the purple costume reminiscent of Chagall's paintings that inspired the silent character of the Fiddler (Jesse Kovarsky miming the fiddling actually done in the pit within the stage by Kelly Hall-Tompkins — To hear another famous fiddler, Isaac Stern, play the introductory music to the film version go here). The Fiddler, who's the show's silent chorus, actually spends little time on the roof but except for a Peter Pan like rise at the end of the opening number he more or less lurks around the stage.
Finally a word about the orchestra which never drowns out the lyrics and never sounds over-amplified even in this big theater. and so to conclude: "le'chayim!" to all the past, current and future performers and directors who've continued to give life to this life embracing musical.
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Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreography by Hofesh Shechter, inspired by the original choreography of Jerome Robbins
Musical direction by Ted Sperling
Cast: Danny Burstein (Tevye), Jessica Hecht Golde, Jenny Rose Baker (Shprintze), Michael C. Bernardi (Mordcha), Adam Dannheisser (Lazar Wolf), Hayley Feinstein (Bielke), Mitch Greenberg (Yussel/the Beggar), Adam Grupper (the Rabbi), Adam Kantor (Motel), Karl Kenzler (the Constable), Alix Korey (Yente), Jesse Kovarsky (The Fiddler), Samantha Massell (Hodel), Melanie Moore (Chava), George Psomas (Avram), Ben Rappaport (Perchik), Nick Rehberger (Fyedka), Jeffrey Schecter (Mendel), Alexandra Silber (Tzeitel), Jessica Vosk (Fruma Sarah), Lori Wilner (Grandma Tzeitel), Aaron Young (Sasha), Jennifer Zetlan (Shaindel).
Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer
Hair and Wig Design: Tom Watson
Make-Up Design: Tommy Kurzman
Running Time: 2hrs 50 mins, includes 1 intermission.
Broadway Theater 1681 Broadway (W. 53rd St.) From 11/20/15; opening 12/20/15; closing 12/31/16
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