A Simpler Fiddler

Fiddler on the Roof

National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, NYC

After months of resistance, my wife finally wore me down and I got us last minute tickets to see the "Yiddish" Fiddler On The Roof over Labor Day weekend. I've seen Fiddler so many times I figured was it really THAT important that I see it once more.

In a word -- yes. It is unlike any production of Fiddler I've ever seen and as though I've seen it for the very first time. And not because it is all in Yiddish with (projected) English subtitles. In fact, this essay will largely ignore the fact that this production is in Yiddish.

It is the most simple of stagings on a bare stage with a few pieces of wooden furniture, but blessed with a gorgeous ensemble that feels more like a true tight-knit community than a collection of Broadway actors. For instance, the cast completely lacks the polish of trained Broadway dancers -- but looks and feels like the family and friends dancing at my wife's son's Modern Orthodox wedding last December.

And it is in those moments and virtually every other that this Fiddler captures an authenticity that had me weeping from the very first thrilling moment. Because authenticity is what is lacking in every other stage production I've seen (and so beautifully captured in the sweeping Norman Jewison film).

Fiddler On The Roof says it is about "tradition" but it is also about family -- immediate family, extended family and community family. I'm not sure whether this production's sense of family on stage stems from the fact that the Folksbiene Theatre is a tightly knit ensemble that has been performing "in Yiddish" plays for decades, from Joel Grey's astute and sensitive direction or - most likely - both. But it is this sense of family that permeates every moment of the story - to deeply comic, joyous and, ultimately, heart-breaking affect. And by eschewing "Broadway" stagecraft for this authenticity of family, the musical achieves a universality that goes well beyond the confines of Anatevka or the Jewish experience.

Alongside Topol, Steven Skybell is the best Tevye I've ever seen, a human, decent Everyman that is never flashy, never showy, never a "star." When he dances the signature arms above his head it is not a gym exercise, it is an ebullient joy that is half ecstasy and half knocking on heaven's door.

I've heard that he has grown into his performance and I think I was lucky enough to see the most mature result of his long run. His Tevye fairly easily relents to the choices of Tzeitel and Hodel. He puts up minor resistance to their falling in love with Motel the Tailor and Perchik the Revolutionary. A smile crosses his face that is the akin to a shrug. Not joyful, but more of a "what can I do about it." So his moment with Chava -- a bridge too far in her love for a non-Jewish Russian -- is more wrenching and more real and -- yes -- authentic than I've ever seen. That moment will stay with me for a long time.

The last production of Fiddler I saw on Broadway was visually sumptuous -- a Chagall painting come to life. It was gorgeous to look at, but life in Anatevka wasn't gorgeous, was it? What it gained in Broadway stagecraft it lost in credibility.

Go and see this Yiddish Fiddler. Revel in it. It is not to be missed.

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