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July 19, 2018 12:01 pm

A Brilliant ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

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A production photo from the Yiddish-language production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Victor Nechay / ProperPix.

Why is this Fiddler different than all others?

I’ll tell you.

Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most important Jewish contribution to musical theater. Now, the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbeine — has contributed something historic and astounding by presenting Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and Joseph Stein’s book in Yiddish for the first time in half a century and for the first time in America.

Directed with a golden touch by Joel Grey and finely conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, this production at the Museum of Jewish Heritage is nothing short of a masterpiece. Many elements of the show are better than Broadway. You should stop reading this review right now and get tickets before it sells out.

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Like the Jewish people, this Fiddler would seem to be a bit of an underdog. There’s not much of a set to speak of, save for a banner with the word “Torah” written on it in Yiddish, as well as tables and chairs. Some might dismiss a play in another language out of fear of missing the action while reading the subtitles — which are high up and easy to see. You’ll be fine and you won’t miss a thing.

Based on stories by Sholem Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof involves Tevye’s struggles with poverty and parenthood. His power in deciding whom his daughters will marry is put to the test. Tsaytl shuns a marriage with the affluent but much older butcher Leyzer-Volf in favor of the poor tailor Motl Kamzoyl. Hodel wants to marry Pertshik, a rabble-rouser who breaks rules, while Khava secretly marries a Christian named Fyedke. This all occurs in Czarist Russia, where pogroms are a reality.

While it’s unfair to compare any actor to Topol, who starred in the film and many stage productions, previous Broadway revivals were noteworthy because of their Tevyes. Alfred Molina’s lifeless portrayal made it seem like he found out he was being sent to Siberia, while Harvey Fierstein’s grating voice was intolerable. Danny Burstein was fantastic, because he brought a special joy to the role.

Here, Steven Skybell marvelously gives us an everyman version of Tevye, perfectly blending the stern and humorous parts of the character. He knows when to go big and when to hold back, and the result is that we feel we could be inside his shoes, laughing and crying with him.

The sizzle comes from Daniel Kahn as Pertshik and Stephanie Lynne Mason as Hodel. Kahn, who I’ve seen rock the stage at Joe’s Pub with his band The Painted Bird, happens to have a YouTube video of himself singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Yiddish. It is approaching 900,000 views and Kahn helps to make this musical a hit. He seems built for the part from the moment that he says he doesn’t want to take a piece of cheese because he isn’t a charity case, to the moment when walks across the roped mechitsa and asks Hodel to dance.

Mason is a joy to watch whenever she is on stage. Her voice is angelic, and she is pitch-perfect as someone who has pride but realizes that she is in love with a man even though he calls his marriage proposal a political question. She nails the tearjerker Far From The Home I Love or Vayt Fun Mayn Liber Heym in Yiddish.

Jackie Hoffman is hysterical as Yente, a matchmaker who sneaks food into her pockets and seems to forget herself. Her timing is precise. In Der Kholem or The Dream, there are some creepy masks, and Jodi Snyder (with fantastic makeup) provides show-stopping moments as the howling Frume-Sore, the ghostly deceased first wife of Leyzer, who warns against the proposed marriage. And, of course, there is the fantastic bottle dance during the wedding scene, which gets huge applause from the audience.

Cameron Johnson has the arms of a weightlifter and an operatic voice, and his Fyedke is memorable. Rosie Jo Neddy, in the role of Khava, accurately portrays an innocent young woman who succumbs to the temptation of forbidden love. Rachel Zatcoff has a pleasant voice as Tsaytl and is convincing as someone who doesn’t want to be given away like a piece of property.

As Leyzer-Volf, Bruce Sabath is not as demonstrative as he should be, and as a result his interactions with Skybell lack tension. Also, while Motl is supposed to transform from a nebbish to a man when he tells Tevye that even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness, Ben Liebert doesn’t provide the moxie to show this transition. As Golde, Mary Illes could be more imposing, but she gets it right when she needs to be sensitive in Do You Love Me?

The iconic If I Were A Rich Man or Ven Ikh Bin a Rotshild, and Sunrise, Sunset or Tog-Ayn, Tog-Oys don’t disappoint, and may make you laugh and cry. Skybell’s humility gives the show a unique intimacy and the production hugs you like a warm blanket. The result is the feeling that this is not simply a show; it is our history.

And it is a great present.

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