Dec 18, 2015

From the Review Vaults: "Fiddler" with Harvey & Rosie

photo by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times
This excellent piece by my colleague Eric Grode, looking back at 50 years of Fiddler memories as the musical's newest revival readies for its opening, reminded me that I was sent to review it a little more than 10 years ago by It didn't hurt that Eric's story opens with a shot of one of the more derided pairings in director David Leveaux's unjustly maligned revival, Rosie O'Donnell and Harvey Fierstein. That in fact was the pair I was sent to review, in fact, some months after the show opened with Alfred Molina and Randy Graff; and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed not only them but Leveaux's sobered-up staging.

So, as I and many thousands of theatergoers prepare to return once again to Anatevka (with the estimable Danny Burstein as Tevye), I offer a reprint of my (since web-scrubbed) review. L'chaim!

Fiddler on the Roof
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Oct. 13, 2005

Rosie O'Donnell gets no star's entrance in Fiddler on the Roof, the cast of which she recently joined in the supporting role of Golde, Tevye's stoical wife. Instead, the stocky, voluble television icon trots out dutifully in half-light with the chorus at show's opening and takes her place in the opening tableau of "Tradition." It is only when O'Donnell steps out, as part of a small group of mothers, to trumpet her role in making a "proper home" that we recognize that familiar cherubic visage under the kerchief and apron.

This is not exactly Rosie's turn, in other words. And audiences who've already written off director David Leveaux's stark, wintry production are unlikely to rush to see, or revisit, this Fiddler, which has struggled at the box office despite a brief surge early this year when croaky, endearing Harvey Fierstein took over the role of Tevye. (The show has announced a January closing.) That's a pity, because this much-dismissed revival merits a serious reevaluation and a wider audience. If it was originally deplored for lacking warmth and humor, it has them now in O'Donnell and Fierstein, respectively. More importantly, though, the tensile strength of Leveaux's conception remains as clear and taut as a violin string.

Leveaux has successfully reimagined this classic as a hardscrabble folk operetta, closer in feeling to Brecht and Weill than to Rodgers and Hammerstein. For all the sweet-tempered ballads and that leaven the minor scales of Jerry Bock's poignant score, the poor Jews of the Anatevka shtetl are more like the Joads than the Von Trapps. And even with Fierstein lightly invoking the winking, shrugging posture of the American Jewish comic tradition, this is still a show with a haunted heart--a pogrom nipping at its heels and a dream of a homeland disturbing its sleep.

In this context, O'Donnell is admirably restrained, even tight-lipped. It's a performance defined and determined more by physicality than personality, mostly to its benefit. Her stout frame matter-of-factly unflattered by costumer Vicki Mortimer's house dresses, O'Donnell has a blunt economy of movement that's both matronly and self-possessed. It doesn't hurt that she looks like she could kick Fierstein's Tevye up and down the stairs; Fierstein is accordingly, and amusingly, cowed. This shifted balance of power gives a bittersweet sting to their second-act duet, "Do You Love Me?" It's one of Golde's few moments in the spotlight, and O'Donnell's emphatic gesticulating betrays her eagerness to make it count. But it remains a lovely, ambivalent consideration of middle-aged marriage in a show otherwise touchingly besotted with its young lovers.

In the latter department, a few new performers bring welcome freshness to the suitors of Tevye's daughters: Michael Therriault makes an ardent and intensely sunny Motel the tailor, while Paul Anthony Stewart smartly plays against the heartthrob factor with the rebel student Perchik, which of course makes him all the more appealingly swoony, particularly with the fine, yearning ballad "Now I Have Everything."

Kevin Stites' onstage band sounds marvelous, like a dream café orchestra, and Jonathan Butterell's musical staging, which liberally references the original Jerome Robbins choreography, retains its folksy force. It may be that Tom Pye's woodsy, homespun set, lit in often harsh whites by Brian MacDevitt, goes one step too far in that it gives the game away: This is a temporary resting place for harried nomads, the set says. What's worse, it's twilight in these woods. That may also be true of this underappreciated, foreshortened Fiddler. But like the villagers who snatch what joy they can from an unforgiving world, this Fiddler is making the most of its stop here while it lasts.

Fiddler on the Roof
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Book by Joseph Stein
Directed by David Leveaux
Minskoff Theatre

No comments: