Another New York City production of Fiddler on the Roof so soon after the 2015 Broadway revival? Yes, and this version, done entirely in Yiddish, demands to be seen. The language, which could be a barrier for many, is a non-issue (there are brief translations in English and Russian projected off to each side of the stage) for a musical so ingrained in our culture. For theater-goers all too familiar with the timeless Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock score and Joseph Stein book, the Yiddish dialogue and lyrics add to the naturalistic setting and earthiness of the production.
The story, that addresses such timely issues as anti-Semitism, religious freedom, traditional norms, and forced immigrant migration, revolves around Teyve, a poor milkman, his wife Golde, and their five daughters. Life in the old-world Russian town of Anetevka is simple and, mostly, uncomplicated until, one-by-one, Teyve’s three eldest daughters become engaged and wed in ways that up-end and challenge family and religious values and customs. At the same time the Russian authorities in the small village, who have let the Jewish community go about their daily lives with little interference, becomes more aggressive, finally forcing the townspeople to leave their beloved way of life.
The score by Bock and Harnick is one of the greatest in Broadway musical history. Every song is a gem beginning with the spirited and vibrant opening number “Tradition” (Traditsye). Other classics include the comedic, “The Dream,” the heart rendering ballad “Anetevka,” and the joyous “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.” Again, because the musical numbers are so well-known the necessity for understanding the Yiddish lyrics is minor.
The cast is superb, led by Steven Skybell as Teyve. His portrayal is that of an everyman trying to eke out a living and understand the fast-changing world. He is not the larger-than-life character as embodied by such notable predecessors as Zero Mostel, Topol, and even Harvey Fierstein. We feel and believe his trials and tribulations. Jennifer Babiak’s Golde is firm, understanding, and both flustered and content with her troublesome husband. Jackie Hoffman, always a solid comic performer, is no less so here. Her Yente injects a degree of humor and unabashed gusto into the musical. Rachel Zatcoff (Tzeitel), Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), and Rosie Jo Neddby (Khave), the young women who play the three older daughters show a wide-range of emotions and independence as each breaks free from family and tradition.
Director Joel Grey has kept the setting and production values to a minimum. This allows the audience to focus more directly on the characters and story. When necessary, he does add embellishments to a scene, such as the dream sequence, only when it will better serve the show. The Tony Award winning actor knows how to bring both elation and pathos to a scene. More intimate scenes are handled with aplomb, while larger settings, such as the wedding sequence, in conjunction with Stas Kmiec’s new, spirited choreography, are delivered with a joyous rapture
Fiddler on the Roof, worth seeing again. Playing Off-Broadway through September 1st.