Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Broadway "Tradition" Continues

Review: Fiddler on the Roof

Danny Burstein as Tevye in the latest Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

How does one reinvent a show centered around the concept of tradition? It is the title of the glorious opening number of Fiddler on the Roof, where Jewish milkman Tevye speaking directly to the audience about the virtues of the well-delineated societal rules in his little town of Anatevka. Throughout the show Tevye and his daughters deviate from the old ways with only the purest of intents, and yet it still causes an enormous amount of trouble for the well-meaning clan. Those traditions end up providing the characters comfort in times of great adversity, and the show ultimately seems to argue that while some change is inevitable there's no need to completely ignore the old way of doing things. Oddly enough, it is a lesson director Bartlett Sher attempts to teach while simultaneously ignoring, as the least successful aspects of this generally first rate revival (the show's fifth) are the areas where Sher most obviously breaks from the traditional way of mounting the show.

Sher has made quite the name for himself staging critically heralded revivals of both plays and musicals, having found particular success with the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. With Fiddler on the Roof, he once again sweeps away the cobwebs from a script some may view as dated and makes it compelling and relevant. Yet unlike his Tony-winning South Pacific or The King and I, Sher's directorial hand is more apparent here, and not always for the better. He hasn't changed a word of the script, but he has awkwardly grafted a wordless modern dress framing device onto the show that doesn't add anything to the preexisting text. The production design is also purposefully deconstructed for reasons that aren't at all apparent, occasionally distracting from rather than adding to the storytelling.

Now none of the above is meant to in any way imply that Sher's direction is bad. It is often outstanding, breathing fresh life into a show many know by heart. Sher has guided his cast to fully lived performances that feel fresh, exciting, and even slightly dangerous. He has a near matchless understanding of pacing, giving each story beat room to breathe while also keeping everything moving along at such a steady clip the show never drags despite its three hour runtime. He has a stellar eye for simple yet powerful stage pictures, and seamlessly switches gears between broad comedy and heartwrenching drama. Sher has never directed a funnier sequence than "Tevye's Dream," and he his storytelling has rarely been as devastating as it is during the show's emotional climax, which makes his few missteps all the more noticeable.

Sher is aided, as always, by an impeccable cast of theatrical greats working at the top of their game. Headlining this Fiddler is five-time Tony-nominee Danny Burstein in the role of Tevye, and the veteran character actor has arguably never been better. While it would be disingenuous to call Burstein's performance understated - among other things, he gets to play more comedy than he's been given in any role since Adolfo in The Drowsey Chaperone - his performance is not as immediately flashy as one might expect from a role written for the famously outsized Zero Mostel. But it is a deeply felt, fully realized portrayal that builds and builds to an emotional sucker punch of a climax, when one of his beloved daughters decides to marry outside the faith. Burstein is alternatively jovial and genuinely imposing as the role demands, and he handles all the areas in between with such effortless aplomb you forget he's acting at all. His voice also perfectly suits the show's famous score, and his exuberant performance of "If I Were a Rich Man" is every bit the showstopper such a gifted performer deserves.

Burstein's performance forms the blueprint that the rest of the cast follows, as many of his fellow actors also initially appear unassuming while laying the groundwork for what are revealed to be deeply affecting performances. Jessica Hecht's wife Golde at first skews very harsh and shrewish (you definitely understand why Tevye would be scared of her), but she leavens her work with enough moments of tenderness that it is genuinely touching when she struggles to answer Tevye's question of "Do You Love Me?" She is also heartbreaking during the final few scenes, as the aftermath of her third daughter's marriage fully hits.

As daughters Tzietel, Hodel, and Chava respectively, Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell, and Melanie Moore all have their moments, although it takes them a bit longer to click into their roles. Their performance of "Matchmaker, Matchermaker" isn't quite the homerun you'd expect, but to their credit all three act the song so well it makes you hear the well-known lyrics anew.  Massell also does a phenomenal job with Hodel's "Far From the Home I Love," making the song a late-evening highlight. The structure of the show doesn't provide as much for Adam Kantor (Motel), Ben Rappaport (Perchik), and Aaron Young (Fyedka) to do as the daughter's respective spouses, but all three actors make strong impression with the material they do have. And if Alix Korey's Yente the Matchmaker isn't quite the scenery chewer you'd expect, she is nevertheless absolutely hysterical.

Few shows have proven as durable and iconic a part of the musical theatre cannon as Fiddler on the Roof, and Bartlett Sher has staged this latest revival in a way that reminds even the skeptics how Fiddler achieved that status in the first place. Sher also continues to bring out the best in some of the industry's top talent, guiding Burstein to what may well be considered his crowning achievement. The entire production seems to exist primarily to showcase the actor's many talents, and yet he remains so giving and supportive of his fellow performers he never overshadows the story they are all trying to tell. (I try to leave talk of Tony Awards out of reviews, but if Burstein doesn't finally win an acting trophy for this I don't know what more he can possibly do.) And as always, it is refreshing and invigorating to see such a classic approached with such lavish attention to detail, from the gloriously full orchestra to the finely detailed costumes. Some traditions are worth keeping, and if Fiddler continues to be this entertaining and moving I see no problem with continuing to revive the show every ten years.

1 comment:

  1. I still have a preference for the community theatre production where I was Mendel, the Rabbi's son. but this seems pretty cool