A “Fiddler” that Touches the Heart

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The iconic bottle dance. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Fiddler on the Roof is such a classic musical that is done in so many places by so many groups that it is hard to get excited about yet another production; even one directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Danny Burstein.

But after seeing this production at the Broadway Theater, I am excited. It is a marvelous production that moved me more than many productions I’ve seen – even the excellent production directed by Rob Ruggiero at Goodspeed a few years ago. I thought that set a high standard, but this production easily out does it.

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Danny Burstein as Tevye. Photo by Joan Marcus

You may not have heard of Danny Burstein who plays Tevye, but you should have.  He is one of those consummate Broadway performers who doesn’t have a recognizable name but if you are a New York theater aficionado, you have seen him give memorable performances time after time after time. He has played Herr Schultz in Cabaret, Buddy in Follies, Luther Billis in South Pacific and Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone. That doesn’t include his work in straight plays from Chekhov to A.R. Gurney to Lanford Wilson.

He is joined by an overall excellent cast.

Since, almost everyone has seen Fiddler, do I really need to go into detail about the story of the milkman Tevye living in a small village (Anatevka) in Czarist Russia, his wife and his five daughters, three of whom find husbands before the musical ends? He is an everyman.  He is wise beyond his education, and though deeply tied to tradition and his Jewish faith, also willing to change with the times.

Sher has framed this piece in modern times.  It may have been to help modern audiences get into the story or to show its relevance; after all TV shows about finding your roots get large audiences. So as the show begins we see a wooden sign that says “Anatevka” and then a bearded man in a red winter jacket enters. He is carrying a book and reading what turns out to be the story by Sholem Aleichem. He walks to the front of the stage, takes off his jacket and he is Tevye as he begins “Tradition.” As he talks and sings, we see the fiddler on the roof and the house slowly rises in the background.  Soon he is joined by the rest of the cast.

From there the story begins; we always realize this is a theatrical production – but that doesn’t take away from the power of the show.  The cast members wheel on and off trees to help set the scene.

It is the performances that make this production special.

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Tevka (Danny Burstein) in center. Golde (Jessica Hecht) center bottom and Fruma-Sarah (Jessica Vosk) above in the dream sequence. Photo by Joan Marcus

Let’s start with Burstein.  His Tevye is worn out at times but not old; he is still a vital man who has optimism for the future. Yet you see his yearning for and understanding emotional connections.  It makes the song “Do You Love Me?” even more touching. You see him struggle with the new ideas that his daughters force him to accept; that he is willing to move away from tradition to more modern ideas reflects his awareness of the world around him.  Often, Tevye is played by an actor who is more an actor than a musician or such a major star that the show loses its balance.  Burstein is an accomplished singer as his many musical credits attest. So his musicality adds to this characterization.

Playing his wife, Golda, Jesssica Hecht gives a nuanced performance though her voice cannot compare with Burstein’s. But the role has minimal musical numbers and therefore, her limited vocal experience doesn’t harm the performance.

As the three older daughters who all break tradition in their choices of husbands, Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, Samantha Massell as Hodel and Melanie Moore as Chava, each mines the characters for the core elements.  All of them have both the acting and singing talents to make these characters come alive which they demonstrate right from the beginning in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” The scene (and song “Far From the Home I Love”) where Hodel says goodbye to her father as she leaves to join her husband in Siberia is touching.

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The iconic bottle dance. Photo by Joan Marcus

As the three suitors (and later husbands), Motel, the tailor as played by Adam Kantor combines the acting and singing requirements most effectively. I could quibble that he plays Motel as too afraid of speaking to Tevye, always cowering. But that is a minor quibble.

Ben Rappaport plays Perchik, the radical student who arrives in the village and woos Hodel.  His acting is fine, but he does not have the vocal chops to make the most of “Now I Have Everything”.

Nick Rehberger is Fyedka, the young Russian (and Christian) soldier with whom Chava falls in love with. It would have been good to see a little more depth in the characterization though his is a more minor character.

Alix Korey gives us a fine Yente and Adam Dannheisser is effective as Lazar Wolf, though it is not the best performance of that role I’ve seen.

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Chava (Melanie Moore) and Fyedka (Nick Rehberger). Photo by Joan Marcus.

The costumes by Catherine Zuber remind us that we are watching a performance; they seem too varied for the poor people living in Anatevka, especially the wedding dress for Hodel.

Michael Yeargen’s set is fluid and flexible. The opening is very effective.

One question that always arises is the choreography: Jerome Robbin’s choreography is so iconic in parts (as also happened with West Side Story) that even when it is new, it seems not.  Hofesh Shecter has taken inspiration from the Robbins work – in fact, in the program it says that the entire production is “inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins.”  But he has created his own choreography. Of course, he has kept the iconic hat dance in the wedding scene.

Sher also has paid homage to some of Robbins staging, particularly in the next to last scene as the villages depart Anatevka for an uncertain future.  As in the original they go around in a circle carrying their belongings. But then he brings us back to the present.

A final quibble about this production: the curtain call does not give Burstein a proper “moment.”  He comes out last but then instead of a second bow – or another bow by the principals – the cast goes into a closing dance. It deprives him of the standing ovation he richly deserves.

This Fiddler on the Roof will send you from the theater both thoughtful and filled with warmth.

It is at the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd St.). Tickets are available from Telecharge.

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Leaving Anatevka. Photo by Joan Marcus

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