Thursday, July 26, 2018

Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish)


I greatly enjoyed the Broadway revival of this classic American musical directed by Bartlett Sher two years ago. In spite of that — or perhaps because of it — I wasn’t sure I was ready to see another Fiddler, even one in Yiddish. But then I remembered how much I liked National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of The Golden Bride that same year and was curious to see what they would do with Fiddler in a 1966 translation by Israel actor and director Shraga Friedman that had never been performed in the US. I am very glad that I decided to buy a ticket. Although it may lack Broadway polish, Folksbiene’s version, now running until October 25 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, has a purity and emotional accessibility that makes up for its modest production values. The cast of 26 mostly young actors, almost none of whom knew Yiddish, have learned their lessons well. The singers have excellent voices and the dancers are absolutely first-rate. Staś Kmieć works wonders staging the Robbins-inspired dances and just moving the large cast around on a small stage. The score sounds great in an orchestration by Don Walker adapted by Larry Blank for 12 musicians led by Zalmen Mlotek. Steven Skybell (Pal Joey, Wicked) plays Tevye more as an everyman than a larger-than-life figure, which I think works very well. Jennifer Babiak’s Golde (Fiddler on Broadway) is slightly bland; she would benefit from makeup to make her look older. The roles of the three elder daughters —Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff; The Phantom of the Opera), Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason; The Sorceress) and Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy) — and their respective suitors — Motl (Ben Liebert; Wicked, Little Shop of Horrors) , Pertshik (Daniel Kahn; Amerike - The Golden Land) and Fyedke (Cameron Johnson; The Golden Bride) — are all very well performed. I was afraid that Jackie Hoffman (On the Town, Hairspray) might overwhelm the role of Yente, but fortunately she gives what is for her a restrained performance. Beowulf Boritt’s (Act One, The Scotttsboro Boys) set consists mainly of a series of hanging fabric panels with the word “Torah” in Yiddish on the central one, with simple props moved in as needed. The orchestra is seated behind the panels. Ann Hould-Ward’s (Beauty and the Beast, Into the Woods) costumes deliberately stick to a very limited color palette. Only the Christians get a dash of bright color. The multitalented Joel Grey (Cabaret, The Normal Heart), whose gifts seem undimmed by age, directs with complete assurance. I think the creators — Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book) — would have approved. The production has excellent surtitles in both English and Russian. My rudimentary knowledge of Yiddish required me to consult them more often than I had expected, but it was not really an impediment to my enjoyment. Running time: 3 hours including intermission. 

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