Fiddler on the Roof

As I sat in the audience waiting for this newest production of ""Fiddler On The Roof"" to begin I had a little apprehension as to whether or not I'd be bored having seen and heard this show countless times.

The excitement level of the audience was intense and I was surprised to see the many family units and groups of people, who had come together, all congregating in happy excitement. The moment the first notes from the orchestra came rolling off the stage and the actors appeared I began to relax into a state of enjoyment. I felt like I was visiting an old friend and was delighting as they told me the same story, which had been told over and over again, and yet I found I'm still not tired of hearing it. My fellow audience members seemed to experience the same sensations, as all around me I heard people singing and humming under their breaths along to the songs, clapping to the beat of the music and even beating the actors to some of the punch lines.

The original production of "Fiddler On The Roof" opened on Broadway 40 years ago, making history as Broadways longest running show and won numerous Tony awards - Best book by Jules Stein, Music by Jerry Brock and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Choreography by Jerome Robbins who also directed the original production. Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, "Fiddler On The Roof" is set in the small Russian village of Anatevka on the eve of the Russian Revolution, and tells the humorous and heartbreaking story of the dairyman Tevye, who is trying to maintain the simplicities of his traditional life while his five daughters are quickly growing up. 

This is "Fiddlers" fourth Broadway revival. It has been made into a movie, produced endlessly in elementary, junior and senior high schools and colleges. It has played at countless synagogues and churches as well as community theaters all over the world.  In other words it is one of the best-loved, timeless, and most familiar musicals in our theatrical history.

So, with all the expectations that come along with knowing something as intimately as we do ""Fiddler On The Roof"" the question arises how does a producer, director and actors, stage and perform such a piece without doing the same thing which has been done in the past. How do you take something so wrapped up in traditions of it's own and make it new?

This production has done an excellent job in answering that very question. To start off with they did not copy the original scenic designs, but pulled the stage over the orchestra pit, bringing it closer to the audience. They put the orchestra onstage side by side with the actors. Scenic designer Tom Pye, a 2004 Tony award nominee for best scenic design for this production, has been praised for his clever unconditional use of space and innovative ways of bringing a Russian village to life onstage. Pye created an outdoor village with a gloriously beautiful moon hanging in the background and real silver birch trees sans their leaves, scattered onstage. Stage right (the audiences left hand side) was opened up to the audiences' sight line and raked as if it were a hill complete with more birch trees, their autumn leaves fallen and scattered on the ground below. Additionally screens were set up on stage right and at the rear of the stage (or upstage for you theater folk). These screened areas and the stage right hill were cleverly used by the director in creating small vignettes of actors carrying on as if there was other life, outside of the main characters, continuing on in the village.


The cast was generous with each other and worked well as an ensemble, showing such joy in what they were doing, that it was contagious. The casting of Teveye's family was impressive the body shapes and facial features all matching well enough to believe there was a biological bond between the actors. Tony Award winner Randy Graff lovingly played Golde with an ease and spunkiness that was enjoyable to watch. One of my favorite characters, who I don't recall if he even ever spoke a single word, was the beggar. Played by Tom Titone, the beggar was in many of the scenes usually on the outskirts of the action but so committed to his world that he was creating, he was riveting to watch.

Many people may not think they are familiar with Alfred Molina who plays the lead role of Tevye. But if you watch movies you've seen him. He is currently in the summer blockbuster Spiderman 2 playing the evil Dr. Octavius, he played Diego Rivera in Frida. Other movies you may have seen him in are Choclat, Boogie Nights, and Raiders of the Lost Arc to name a few. He has been nominated for a Tony award, a BAFTA, an Olivier award and a Screen Actors Guild Award. His performance as Tevye was original and precise, artfully showing a strong man full of flaws and weaknesses yet sensitive and loving. Laura Schoop, Tricia Paoluccio, Lea Michele and Betsy Hogg were Tevyes daughters.  Nancy Opel played Yente the Matchmaker, David Wohl was Lazar Wolf. The man who played the Rabbi, Yusef Bulos had auditioned for the original production of "Fiddler" but not been cast.

Five-time Tony Award nominee David Leveaux directed this production of ""Fiddler On The Roof"". Leveaux has brought a new look, attention to detail and sensibility to this production. His level of love, commitment and expertise at re-imaging a classic, shows throughout the entire production.  The flow of the show was swift and graceful with an almost balletic quality to the scene changes. It was as if they became an additional character.  I found myself eagerly waiting to see the set pieces dance from one scene to another, all the while pulling me more deeply into the story.

A favorite scene for most is Tevye's Dream. Filled to the brim with flying ghosts, a moving bed and Chagall inspired creatures this production does not disappoint. To lavish to describe, this is a theater moment you must experience and not read about.

Whether this was scripted or not I don't recall but I loved how Leveaux had the Fiddler looking in on the events as they unfolded, almost a part of the action yet separate. The only thing I found fault with was that I found the role of boy a little perplexing. I could tell he stood for a certain archetype but I felt a little dense to figure out what that was.  It wasn't until the very end that it became clear to me. Throughout the show, I found myself wishing for a translator to explain to me what was happening with that little boy. I even engaged women in the bathroom at intermission to see if they could fill me in. There were many guesses but no one felt they could positively say what his part in the story was.

The dances are the original choreography from Jerome Robbins, restaged by Jonathon Buterell. The bottles in the famous bottle dance are real and they are not attached in any way. They found antique bottles to fit the era and they are waited in the bottom to hold down their center of gravity. Costume design is by Vicki Mortimer, lighting design by Tony Award-winner Brian MacDevitt, and sound design by Acme Sound Partners.  Hair design is by David Brian Brown, and musical direction by Kevin Stites, leading a 25-piece orchestra featuring the original orchestrations by Don Walker.

 

When this production opened they were met with drama and mixed reviews. The drama is that the late Jerome Robbins sister who had come to view opening night died in the audience before curtain went up. The reviews included high praise from those who loved it and others who severely criticized the actors and director. The main criticism being that it wasn't Jewish enough. Having read these reviews I was curious to see what they were talking about. What I found was the production was directed with a gentle touch that brought out the truth of the characters and allowed them and the story to shine. The first few minutes I sat expectantly waiting for the all too familiar Jewishism like the Oy Veys and forehead slapping, things which tend to point directly to farce. What I saw was a production stripped of it's stereotypes like the trees were stripped of their branches, leaving ordinary people who just happened to be Jewish and in Russia, but could have easily been Baptist and from the South. I was lovingly shown a father and mother struggling to raise their children in a world they knew and were familiar with, which was changing more rapidly than they could keep up with. A man struggling to follow the rules and traditions of his fathers, and at the same time ensconced in an inner struggle to be true to his own heart and his love for his family. The stripping away of the expected stereotypes was a brilliant calculated move, which allowed this production to breath and be told again in a fresh new way. I loved it and left with wet eyes and a song on my lips.

"Fiddler On The Roof" opened Thursday, February 26, 2004, at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre (200 West 45th Street), and is produced by James L. Nederlander, Stewart F. Lane/ Bonnie Comley, Harbor Entertainment, Terry Allen Kramer, Bob Boyett/Lawrence Horowitz and Clear Channel Entertainment.


Where: Minskoff Theatre (200 West 45th Street),
When: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. 
Price: Tickets range from $35 to $100, and are available through Ticketmaster.com at (212) 307-4100. $25 Student rush tickets are available at the box office the day of the performance with a valid student I.D.

 

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