Believe everything you’ve heard about the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof. The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene‘s production is fresh, the acting and singing are strong, the casting is smart and the music is both extremely dynamic and classy. Potentially vaudevillian moments are muted in favor of a gravitas that’s sometimes lush and sweeping, at other times austere and plaintive. At a time when people from Syria to Colombia are being forced from their homes to seek refuge thousands of miles asway, and when Jews from Pittsburgh to Poway, California are being murdered, this familiar old story has never been more relevant. And the fact that the narrative concerns daughters breaking free from patriarchal domination shouldn’t be overlooked either.
While the ongoing Manhattan run at Stage 42 marks the Yiddish version’s first American series of performances, Shraga Friedman’s Yiddish translation from the original English is not new: the Polish-Israeli actor and director debuted it in Israel in 1966. However, it is probably safe to say that despite the huge revival of Yiddish as a spoken language, the vernacular probably hasn’t changed much since then.
This is a long production, over three hours including a brief intermission, but it flies by. For non-Yiddish speakers (or those of us who only know terms of endearment and curse words), there are English and Russian supertitles – and some actual Russian sprinkled into the dialogue when the cossacks enter to stir up trouble. The entire cast seem at ease with the language throughout both the narrative and the musical numbers. Friedman’s translation not only rhymes but also pretty much matches the meter of the original songs, although a close listen reveals many instances where both the Yiddish and Russian take some clever poetic license.
As Cencral patriarch Tevye, Steven Skybell brings a curmudgeonly charisma but also an unselfconscious vulnerability to a role that in other productions all too frequently is done completely over the top. As his long-suffering wife Golde, Jennifer Babiak plays her cynicism as survival skill – and also gets to thrill the crowd with her vast, minutely nuanced, operatic vocal range. In a neat bit of casting, Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff) towers over her shy, nebbishy would-be fiance Motl (Ben Liebert). The rest of the cast – notably Jackie Hoffman, as barely tolerated busybody matchmaker Yente, and Joanne Borts, as Tsayt’s namesake ghost of a grandmother – bring as much resonance as sardonic humor to what are in many cases multiple roles.
The music is rich and often symphonic in scope. Andrew Wheeler conducted the orchestra with remarkable restraint and attention to detail. The group only cut completely loose in the klezmer dance numbers, which were as boisterously chaotic as anyone would want. Clarinet wizard D. Zisl Slepovitch snuck from behind the curtain to the corner of the stage where he bopped and fired off an all-too-brief series of biting chromatic riffs. As the eponymous Fiddler, Lauren Jeanne Thomas sometimes mimes and sometimes plays, but either way her timing and dynamics are perfectly precise.
At last night’s performance, the two best numbers were the tantalizingly brief, rustically ambered Sabbath Prayer – a momentary showstopper for Bobiak – and a sweeping, lingering version of the bittersweet, saturnine ballad Sunrise, Sunset. If I Were a Rich Man gets translated as Ven ikh bin a Rotschild, along with some sly wordplay that’s not in the original. Hannah Temple’s accordion along with the trumpets of Clyde Daley and Jordan Hirsch, and Daniel Linden’s trombone, brought equal parts fire and poignancy to the traditional tunes, especially at the end.
Beowulf Borritt’s stark, minimalist set design creates a striking milieu for the people of Anatevka and the never-ending succession of trouble they have to face. In one of many subtle strokes of staging, a fabric backdrop seems to be repaired, between acts, in a way that would befit one of the central characters. And the simple change of language helps immeasurably in creating a defamiliarizing effect. So you think you’ve seen Fiddler? You should see this one. Shows are Tues-Sun, generally at 8 PM with matinees as well. While the performances have been selling out for months, discount rush tickets are sometimes available.