Bob Goepfert: A Fiddler Goes Back To His Roots

Mar 21, 2019

A problem that is always faced with a revival is how to make it fresh.  

For the production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is playing at Stage 42 in New York City, the answer is to go back to its roots.

This production is presented entirely in Yiddish, the language used by Sholem Alecheim, who, at the turn of the 20thcentury, wrote the stories upon which “Fiddler” is based.  In this production using Yiddish, an earthy tongue, adds to the authenticity of the story being told.  

But, not to worry, there are very clear English subtitles projected on both sides of the performing space.

Performing in a language for which the material was intended is a choice that adds sincerity, emotional depth and a deep sense of honesty to the story of Tevye, the poor Russian dairyman who finds inner-strength by clinging to his traditional values.  His strength is tested as he is torn between his faith in God, and his love for his daughters who abandon those traditions, without dismissing his values.  

This approach has hit a positive nerve with audiences.   Last year, it opened what was to be a limited two-month run in July at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.  It was so popular, it extended through October. The demand was still so great, that in February, they revived the revival at the 499-seat theater Stage 42 on 42ndStreet in midtown.  It was to be another limited run – which has just been extended through September 1.

Performing “Fiddler” in Yiddish grounds the production to the point where it almost seems a play with supporting music.   

This is not to diminish the magnificent score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.   Songs like “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “To Life”  still have an emotional impact that adds beauty to the work.

However, the production, directed by famed actor Joel Grey, is grounded in character.   You not only know who these people are, you understand and care about them.   Grey wisely directs the actors to play the emotions of a moment, rather than go for an easy laugh. 

An example is the “Do You Love Me?” number between Tevye and his wife Golde.  Instead of the typical “What a stupid question to be asking?” way of performing, here it’s played as a “I never thought of that.”  This approach with the song makes it a tender statement about mature love. Beyond that, it gives Jennifer Babiak, who plays Golde, a chance to display a gorgeous voice.

The epitome of the honest, solid approach to the show is Steven Skybell’s portrayal of Tevye.   It’s fruitless to call any performance “the best” but Skybell’s portrait is one that will be forever etched in my memory.  He creates a sincere man who is filled with doubt and love; they both shape him and torment him.   

This is perhaps the most dignified and compassionate Tevye imaginable. Remarkably, it’s accomplished without losing any of the humor inherent in his frustrating situations.  As a point of reference, it’s 180-degrees away from Zero Mostel’s original warm but flamboyant creation; yet neither interpretation detracts from the other.  The character is that rich. 

Indeed the entire work, which runs 3 hours, is rich, complex and inspiring. “Fiddler on the Roof,” is about family values and the power and cost of tradition.  

Supporting performances are excellent, especially the comic work of Jackie Hoffman as the matchmaker Yente.  Dancing is superb, and the famous Bottle Dance is performed to perfection.   

But the resonance of the show comes from the stories of hard-working, honest and loyal people who live in poverty under an oppressive political regime. The time is 1905, the place is Anatevke, Russia.    But it could be anywhere, at any point in history.

Indeed, it could be today.  At play’s end, all the Jews in the community are told they have three days to sell their homes and leave the country.    

As sudden immigrants, these  powerless, good people become desperate to find a place that might offer safety, security and a place to contribute.   Of course in 1905 they still had America.  

It gives you something else to think about on the way home.

“Fiddler on the Roof,” at Stage 42, 422 42ndStreet, NYC. Through September 1.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

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