Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most storied musicals of all time, has an ever-resonant story, unforgettable songs, and a central character who truly merits the overused term “iconic.” Still, I didn’t know how fresh a new revival could be after more than half a century. But thanks to bright performances, crisp staging, and dashing new dances and musical arrangements that respect their sources, the new Broadway revival doesn’t feel dated at all.
Tevye, the put-upon middle-aged milkman of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, has been brought to life on stage by a series of memorable performers over the decades since Fiddler‘s smash-hit Broadway debut in 1964, most especially Zero Mostel in that production and Topol in the 1971 Norman Jewison movie.
The new Broadway production, directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, stars Danny Burstein. This Broadway veteran energizes Tevye with youthful and ever-so-slightly fey flair, managing to make the role his own without making an uncalled-for effort to break from its heavy legacy. Thankfully, the production itself takes the same tack, honoring its predecessors without genuflecting to them, wearing the mantle of its history lightly and with grace.
The mesmerizing dances and nostalgic tone bear the imprint of Jerome Robbins, the show’s original guiding hand, but it all seems effortless. From the mini-pogrom that ends the exuberant wedding scene to the bubbly excitement over Motel’s new sewing machine, and from the infamous bottle dance to the tear-stained farewell of Tevye and his daughter Hodel at the train station, the scenes and musical numbers as written and as staged here tug at the emotions in just the right measures.
It’s a beautiful scene when the family gathers around Tevye’s wife, Golde, as she lights the candles for “Sabbath Prayer.” Other families dot the stage, receding into the distance at miniature tables with their own candles. On the dark side of family togetherness, Teyve’s roar that “Chava is dead to us!” after his third daughter’s elopement with a non-Jew reveals in an instant the limits to Tevye’s willingness to defy tradition and compromise with modern times by allowing a member of the family to break out of the community’s insular web.
There are a few weaknesses. Jessica Hecht’s funny, centered, poignant characterization of Golde was marred by a relatively flimsy singing voice, at least at the performance I attended. And in the context of the production’s numerous deep, three-dimensional characterizations, Chava (Melanie Moore), comes across as stark and wooden, while her non-Jewish paramour Fyedka (Nick Rehberger) is the opposite, a little too naturalistically modern.
It’s much easier to understand what eldest daughter Tzeitel (a glowing Alexandra Silber) and the poor tailor Motel (a wonderfully winning Adam Kantor) see in each other, or indeed Hodel (Samantha Massell) and the revolutionary spark plug Perchik (Ben Rappaport). Indeed most of the cast infuses their roles with depth and power – rich Lazar Wolf, the disappointed suitor (Adam Dannheisser); the sympathetic but brutish-when-ordered Constable (Karl Kenzler); the matchmaker Yente (Alix Korey).
In this fictional tale based on the stories of a real people, the fate of the Jewish residents of the Russian village of Anatevka rings truer than a mere chapter in history. The songs Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock crafted have insured that. But recurring waves of xenophobia and hatred like the current rash of anti-Muslim racism and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict make the story resonant in an especially painful way.
As Tevye and his family and the rest of Jewish Anatevka trundle offstage, their belongings loaded into carts and suitcases, heading for wherever they can find refuge (America, Poland, the Holy Land), it’s hard not to think of the millions of displaced people all over the world today.
On the other hand (as Tevye likes to say), a tiny gesture can carry a promise of humanity’s better side. Lazar Wolf, whose character I appreciate more the older I get, surreptitiously slips some money into Tevye’s cart as the community hits the refugee road. This unidirectionally anonymous tzedekah, a high form of charity in Jewish tradition, to a man who did him wrong when conflicting loyalties left him no perfect choice, speaks softly but with great power.
So does this Fiddler, boisterous as it is. It has no need to shout its messages, or the greatness of its material. It’s all baked in, ready to serve, and Sher and his marvellous team have said the blessing over the bread – and the sewing machine.