Theater review by Raven Snook
How do you make Fiddler on the Roof even more Jewish? Do it in Yiddish! Fans of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s landmark musical about Tevye the Milkman and his shtetl community in early-20th-century Russia will go meshuga for the U.S. premiere of Shraga Friedman’s translation, which ran briefly in Israel in 1965. It’s a mitzvah that the century-old National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has resurrected this version, which lets the characters speak (and sing) in the expressive guttural tongue they would have used in real life—the language of the Sholem Aleichem stories that inspired the show.
English translations are projected for the benefit of those who don’t know Yiddish, and many of the performers aren’t fluent in the language, either (they have learned their lines phonetically, much as opera singers often do). But director Joel Grey—yes, that Joel Grey—has made sure the performers know what they’re feeling, even if they don’t know what they’re saying, and their emotional journeys are so clear you may find yourself abandoning the oddly placed supertitles to luxuriate in the sound of the language and the klezmer-inflected score, played by a lively 12-piece orchestra. Of course, that means you may miss the ways this Yiddish interpretation differs from the original, as when “If I Were a Rich Man” is reimagined as “If I Were a Rothschild,” a reference to a 1902 tale by Aleichem.
Steven Skybell, who appeared in the most recent Broadway revival of Fiddler, is a compelling Tevye whose evolution from confidence to uncertainty—as a father, as a citizen, even as a man of faith—is heartbreaking. Mary Illes is solid as his nervous wife, Golde, who wants to arrange good marriages for their five daughters, and scene stealer Jackie Hoffman has audiences plotzing at every punch line as gossipy matchmaker Yente. The rest of the 26-member cast sings strongly, especially the “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” trio of Stephanie Lynne Mason, Rachel Zatcoff and Rosie Jo Neddy, and everyone handles Staś Kmieć’s re-creation of Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography well enough. Cameron Johnson, so dreamy in Folksbiene’s The Golden Bride two summers ago, makes a winning impression as Russian suitor Fyedke.
This simple, sentimental production isn’t about spectacle. The bare-bones design is dominated by a sheet emblazoned with the word TORAH in Hebrew lettering, which is torn apart and sewn back together in a powerful evocation of what the Jewish people have endured. Here’s hoping Folksbeine’s Yiddish Fiddler becomes a new tradition.
Museum of Jewish Heritage (Off Broadway). Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Music by Jerry Bock. Book by Joseph Stein. Directed by Joel Grey. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 55mins. One intermission.
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Museum of Jewish Heritage, Edmond J. Safra Plaza
36 Battery Place