Fiddler's Flaw - A Review
There are a lot of amazing things happening on stage at the Broadway Theatre in the current revival of Fiddler on the Roof: artistry, beautiful singing, poignancy, poetry and a darkness that underscores a bleak time in the history of European Jews. There is also a disappointing lack of joy in a production that is so earnest in telling the hardship and heartache that it forgets that there is a reason why we love Anatevka and are moved by it's quirky denizens: their sense of humor about all things.
Under the direction of Bartlett Sher, this is a Fiddler on the Roof that plays more like a Chekhovian drama rather than the musical comedy that it once was and was once celebrated as. Many people would assert that the story of starving people and the pograms that destroyed their homes, was never one to laugh about. It's true that, historically, this is not a remotely funny topic. It is, however, through the humor of the script and the colorful nature of the characters that we fall in love with Anatevka and Fiddler on the Roof. In many ways, we all know a Tevye, a Golde, a Motel or a Yente in our own lives that make these people instantly relatable. We laugh and celebrate with these familiar folk and when we see them evicted from their homes, we are all the more affected for having felt their warmth and humor. It feels like we are losing a piece of ourselves as they pack up their town, their community and lives splintered. That is what is missing in this revival of Fiddler on the Roof: the opportunity to smile and laugh so our hurt can cut a little deeper and with sharper intensity when the musical’s tragic conclusion plays out. It’s a disservice to the piece.
In direct correlation with the subdued humor, this emotionally strained revival struggles to find a heart. This happens in spite of some top-notch players wrestling with the uncomfortable direction, doing their best to infuse the gloomy proceedings with some joy. Danny Burstein, always a treat to watch onstage, appears ready to burst at the seams, tethered as he is with a subtler Tevye. You can almost feel his instinct to play with the humor, but he does a respectable job of keeping the character cut from the same cloth as the production. He is an understated Tevye, more put-upon, less humorous, but a humanly believable one. Jessica Hecht is a fitfully dreary Golde, no-nonsense and blunt with just the perfect dash of vulnerability that presents itself at the most unexpected times. What plays on her face is often far more interesting than what the direction and production call for, every drop of stress and strength worn like tattered badges of survival. Yente the Matchmaker has always been one of the funniest characters in Fiddler on the Roof with her pragmatic fatalism and ample supply of guilt for the spreading. Alix Korey, always a fine comedienne, should be shining in this role, but she also seems bound by some contract of stoic seriousness, ruling out any bold choices that might lead to a hearty laugh or larger-than-life interpretation. When the usually hysterical “Tevye’s Dream” sequence barely gets a chortle and feels more like a Julie Taymor experiment (including spooky masks) gone awry, you find yourself longing for whatever crumbs of humor you can find and laughing where the sparse possibilities avails themselves.
By no means is this a horrible production of Fiddler on the Roof. In fact, the audience surrounding me seemed mostly pleased with the production, but most of their responses came with tears instead of laughter. I don’t think you are allowed to dislike Fiddler on the Roof. You are supposed to revere it as a theatre classic, no matter how it is presented. It is a bold choice to embrace a more somber interpretation of Sholem Aleichem’s characters, but one that only moved me in fits and starts. I personally prefer a more balanced production, one where humor paves the way for the tragedy. It’s part of the sensibility of the quips in Joseph Stein’s book that pepper these characters with life, ensuring that they are endeared to us as we walk hand-in-hand with them toward the unknown. It is certainly a structural device and a tool of character development in how the Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick score evolves throughout the story, rocking back and forth between sly, sophisticated humor and elegiac poetry. When the two are in balance, the fiddler stands poised on the roof with his bow extended, ready to play a deeply felt tune of life’s ups and downs. The idea is for him to play up there, not jump.