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Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 21, 2019

Steven Skybell
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Stage 42, formerly known as the Little Shubert, has long been cursed with a history of shows that have been short-lived commercial failures. But that curse just may have been lifted (and here I pause to spit three times to ward off the Evil Eye) with the transfer of the richly honest, heart-felt, and insightful Yiddish language production of Fiddler on the Roof, more appropriately identified as A Fidler Afn Dakh.

While I did not see this well-received National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production at its previous home at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, I have, through the years, been in the audience for many English-language Fiddlers, from Zero Mostel's final over-the-top tour to Bartlett Sher's Americanish version with Danny Burstein as the iconic and beloved milkman blessed with five daughters but "no dowry, no money, no family background" that would enable him to arrange a good marriage for them. I even, ahem, auditioned for the role of Tevye for a community theater production, performing what I have convinced myself was a most creditable rendition of "If I Were A Rich Man" (cleverly changed here in Shraga Friedman's Yiddish translation to "Ven Ikh Bin A Rotshild," or "If I Were A Rothschild").

This production is very special indeed, endowed with a superabundance of strengths. If I were to narrow it down to one, it would be this: everyone involved absolutely respects the story that is being told, bringing out every bit of nuance that lies within Friedman's translation of Joseph Stein's English-language book and its source material of Sholem Aleichem's stories about the Jewish shtetl in early twentieth century Ukraine. There is not an ego or show-off in sight, and that includes Jackie Hoffman's performance as Yente the matchmaker, a comic role that the effusive actress might have easily turned into a scene-chewing one-woman show.

Maybe it's because it is not necessary to concentrate on catching every line in all its wonderfully guttural glory (not to worry; there are easy-to-read supertitles in English and Russian translation if you feel a need to follow along), but I found myself picking up on the many details that have been so lovingly woven into the production.

What strikes about Beowulf Boritt's set design is not its appropriate simplicity, but the way the Hebrew spelling of the word "Torah" stands out in its carefully rendered calligraphic presence. It is a constant reminder of the role of religious faith in the lives of the community, a cornerstone that is more important (and less flexible, as it turns out) than the highly-touted "tradition." What catches the eye about Ann Hould-Ward's wonderful homespun costumes is not the drabness or the uniformity, but the all-too-human touches of vanity that appear through the hints of color and pattern that allow the characters to express their individuality. And what stands out against the singing of the way-too-familiar "Sunrise, Sunset" is the silent performance of the rituals involved in the wedding ceremony during which it is sung. Indeed, all of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's songs are character-driven and serve the story instead of serving to highlight the individual performers, all of whose talents are directed at being members of an ensemble, the local inhabitants of Anatevke whose lives we are privileged to be able to eavesdrop on.

Of course, there is no denying that the central character is, as it must be, Tevye. And Steven Skybell, who, as it happens, played the role of Lazer Wolf in the most recent Broadway production of Fiddler, is an outstanding Tevye, giving us a complex character who is a mix of cowed husband, stern but tender father, and a peacemaker between the villagers and the Russian constable. In another smart touch, the Russian characters speak a little Yiddish and Tevye speaks a little Russian so that they can communicate, however haltingly.

In Skybell's Tevye, then, we see both a practical man who is wise enough to understand that the world is changing, and a Jew of abiding faith in the God he frequently has one-sided conversations with. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, so that when he sings to his wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak), "Do You Love Me?" it is not a comic interlude but a genuine, and therefore risky, query. And when he says his final words to the daughter he has cut off forever, the moment is as devastating for us as much as it is for him.

All told, director Joel Grey, the rather famous son of Borscht Belt Yiddish comic and musician Mickey Katz, has given us a Fiddler that is a towering labor of love, delivering the goods with heart, soul, and integrity. What a mensch!

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish
Through June 30
Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge