February 10, 2016

"Fiddler on the Roof" is a Bit Off-Key for Me

Some roles become so identified with one actor that others shy away from doing them. Here I'm thinking of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (although the British actress Sheridan Smith recently dared to step into Barbra Streisand's shoes and I'd love to see Lady Gaga give them a try). But other roles have been marked so indelibly that succeeding actors can't resist imitating the original. In that category stands Tevye the dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Lots of actors—Herschel Bernardi, Topol, Theodore Bikel, Alfred Molina, Harvey Fierstein—have played the poor milkman since Zero Mostel originated the role in 1964 and each has raised his hands aloft, wiggled his shoulders and shaken his hips just as Mostel did when he performed the iconic "If I Were A Rich Man (click here to read more about some of their experiences)."  

Danny Burstein does them too in the revival of Fiddler that is currently playing at The Broadway Theatre. But although Burstein has a fine voice, he's also a very fine actor and he brings lots of other things to the role as well. 

Burstein is smaller than most of the men who have played Tevye but that makes an unexpectedly good fit for the character. For circumstances are constantly threatening to overwhelm Tevye, a God-fearing Jew living in a turn-of-the-last century Russia filled with volatile anti-Semites and a tradition-proud man who is father to five rebellious daughters. 

Without sacrificing the humor that the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem built into the stories on which the show is based, Burstein layers his performance with the disappointment, anger and resignation Tevye experiences as he confronts a changing world (click here to read more about the actor). 

The result is precisely the kind of darker interpretation that director Bart Sher likes to excavate when he revives classic musicals as he's done with South Pacific and The King and I. But in this case some of it works (Burstein's performance) and some of it doesn't. 

Sher frames Joseph Stein's classic book with a silent modern-day prologue and coda that link Tevye's eventual exile from his beloved village of Anatevka to current refugee crises around the world, which struck me as unnecessary and even Sheldon Harnick, the sole survivor of the original creative team, has expressed some doubts about it (click here to read more about his thoughts).

The milkman's daughters have also been made more feminist. As the matchmaker approaches their home with a proposal for the eldest sister Tzeitel, the girl and her sisters turn the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" from the usual playful fantasy about the kind of man each hopes to marry into a plaintive lament about how poor girls like them have so little choice in the matter. 

I might have been more accepting if the singing had been better. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's score is chocked full of some of the most beautiful and beloved show tunes in the Broadway songbook (click here to read more about the public's longstanding love affair with the show) but, with the exception of Burstein's numbers, they simply aren't performed well this time out.

To be fair, the actresses playing two of the sisters were out the night my husband K and I saw the show but that doesn't explain the weak showing of some of the others. 

Jessica Hecht is pitch perfect as Tevye's no-nonsense wife Golde, except when it comes to her singing. Whenever she can, this otherwise feisty Golde softens her voice, as though seeking refuge behind that of her singing partner. 

Meanwhile, the exuberance of "Miracle of Miracles," the song the village tailor Motel sings when he summons up the nerve to claim the woman he loves is undercut by another tentative performance.

I wasn't crazy about the dancing either. Jerome Robbins made the dances he created for the original production as expressive of the characters' emotions as the songs Bock and Harnick wrote for them. Previous revivals have reproduced the Robbins routines but Sher recruited the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter to come up with new ones (click here to read more about him).

Schechter's work is looser-limbed than Robbins and, for all I know, may even be more authentic, but it's not as clever—or as emotional. Or maybe, like those other Tevyes, I'm just too stuck on the old way of doing things.

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