Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fiddler on the Roof

Harvey Fierstein fashions his unique take as Tevya in ‘FIDDLER’ at the Palace

‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ is unique and generally considered a classic in the musical theatre genre. Harvey Fierstein, who stars as Tevya in the production which is now on stage at the Palace Theatre as part of the Broadway Series, is also unique, and is likewise considered a classic. The duo meet head on in this production, billed as 'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF': THE FAREWELL TOUR.’

‘FIDDLER,’ a Tony award winning musical, is based on the stories of Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, which were published in 1894. With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, its memorable score includes such rousing and emotionally laden songs as, "Tradition," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "If I Were A Rich Man" and "Sunrise, Sunset."

It is Tsarist Russia in 1905. Tevye, the father of five daughters, attempts to maintain traditions while outside influences encroach upon century-long patterns. His three older daughters each make life changing decisions, which moves them further from customs of their faith, and an edict from the Tsar, that evicts the Jews from their village, further destroys life as Tevye has known it. This is a tale of humor and pathos that can have universal identification.

The original Broadway production of the show, which opened in 1964, was the first run of a musical to surpass the 3,000 performance mark. In spite of original doubts that it would only be of interest to Jewish audiences, the show has been extraordinarily financially profitable and well received. Critically, the original production was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning nine, spawned four Broadway revivals, a 1971 film adaptation, and countless international, community and school productions.

The show’s title stems from the painting "The Fiddler" by Marc Chagall, one of many surreal paintings he created of Eastern European Jewish life. The fiddler, which is often found in Chagall’s works, is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyfulness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance. Chagall’s art was also the inspiration for the original sets for the show.

Zero Mostel was the first Broadway Tevye. Others nootables who have played the pivotal role in one of the shows many productions show are Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Paul Lipson and Chaim Topol. Topol opened the 'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF': THE FAREWELL TOUR’ in January of last year. He left the tour in November due to torn muscles in his arms. Enter Harvey Fierstein, who had played Tevya in the 2005 Broadway revival of the show.

Fierstein is noted as the writer and lead actor in the Tony Award winning ‘TORCH SONG TRILOGY.’ He also wrote the book for ‘LA CAGE AUX FOLLES,’ which won the Tony Award in 1983 and was again recognized at the recent Tony ceremony. Fierstein won an acting Tony Award for the role of Edna Turnblad in the original Broadway production of ‘HAIRSPRAY.’

Your reaction to Fierstein’s portrayal of Tevya will depend on your perception of the script and how much you like Fierstein and his techniques. One thing is for sure, he does not do an imitation of Mostel. His gravely voice, which often sounds like he has both laryngitis and is in the midst of teenage puberty vocal change, adds a humorous texture to Tevye which serves well in the comic sense, but doesn’t help set up the pathos scenes. Fierstein has a great sense of comedy which he develops by the use of extended pauses, eye rolls and sighs. To some it may appear he is begging for laughs, to others, it is part of his comedic charm.

Genius Jerome Robbins laid the foundation for ‘FIDDLER’ through his faithfulness to Jewish traditions (having actors kissing the mezuzah on door frames, adherence to Hebrew pronunciation in prayers, and using the cantorial sounds of the music as the basis for his choreography). Though the present touring production holds to the original choreography, some of Robbins’ touches have been modified. Not so that ‘FIDDLER’ newbies will notice, but apparent to those who saw the original or reenactments of the dancing.

There is a cadence to the way Yiddish is spoken. It is not an accent, but a rhythm. Much of that is void in this production. Yenta (the matchmaker) and Golda (Tevya's wife), for example, sound like they are from modern day New York, rather than the shtetl of Anateva. Accents need not be used, but the cadence is necessary to help create the “tam,” the taste of the script.

Matthew Marks (Fyedka), Jamie Davis (Hodel) and the chorus are excellent vocally. Zal Owen is delightful as Motel, the tailor. The dancing is strong. Highlight numbers include “Tradition,” which sets the mood of the show, “Sabbath Prayer,” and “Do You Love Me?”

The use of the fiddler in this production adds an interesting dimension to the goings on. His presence, as the center of the traditions, and his dismissal as the traditions are broken, adds to the story development.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: 'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF': THE FAREWELL TOUR,’ doesn’t carry all of the emotional impact of many productions of the show, but there is an extended humor level that many will enjoy. If you delight in Harvey Fierstein, you’ll love this production.