Theater Review: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Tradition set to music
February 3, 2016 Updated: February 3, 2016

NEW YORK—Presently in its fifth incarnation on Broadway, “Fiddler on the Roof” (based on stories by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem) marks an important addition to the season. This version resonates in a particularly potent manner with today’s world situation. The byword is “tradition,” and this presentation boils over with it.

Director Bartlett Sher, who moves confidently between Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, has included some daring touches, propelling this version into the 21st century.

The show opens with a man in a contemporary red parka reading from a book and making notes on what he sees: a dismal railway crossing and a dilapidated signpost of “Anatevka,” a Ukrainian village.

Enough cannot be said of Danny Burstein, who brings a rich level of warmth, humanity, and decency to his portrayal of Tevye.

This man shortly becomes Tevye (Danny Burstein), the dairyman of the village. We go back in time to pre-revolutionary Russia, as the entire cast of the show enters and marches downstage in a horizontal line stretching from both sides of the stage. This entrance alone gets a big hand as Tevye and the group sing the rousing “Tradition.”

With the action centering on Tevye and his family, he must cope with a lot of problems. For starters, he has five daughters—three of an age to find husbands. The shrewd book by Joseph Stein (winner of the Tony Award for this work) grades the daughters’ choices as indicative of various levels of tradition.

Danny Burstein as Tevye singing
Danny Burstein as Tevye singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” in a performance that grounds the show. (Joan Marcus)

The eldest, Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), who falls in love with the nebbish tailor Motel (Adam Kantor), obeys the rules by asking her father’s permission to marry. Second daughter Hodel (Samantha Massell) first gets engaged to fiery student Perchik (Ben Rappaport), then later asks for Tevye’s blessing. Her father is dumbfounded but reluctantly acquiesces. 

The third daughter, Chava (Melanie Moore), will forever be estranged from her father, for she has fallen in love with a gentile, the Russian Fyedka (Nick Rehberger). Nevertheless, this couple chooses to elope, even lacking permission. Times are changing.

There’s interesting conflict when Tevye at first agrees to let Lazar Wolf (Adam Dannheisser), the butcher, marry Tzeitel, then must renege when she insists she would always be unhappy with Lazar. The butcher does not take lightly Tevye’s rejection, and Tevye himself is in inner conflict over favoring his daughter’s happiness over his earlier handshake with a respected member of the community.

The three daughters of Golde and Tevye, all of marriageable age: Chava (Melanie Moore), the youngest, Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), the eldest, and Hodel (Samantha Massell). (Joan Marcus)
Three of Golde and Tevye’s daughters, all of marriageable age: (L–R) Chava (Melanie Moore), the youngest; Tzeitel (Alexandra Silber), the eldest; and Hodel (Samantha Massell). (Joan Marcus)

These familial events are interspersed with fabulous music (by Jerry Bock, collaborating with Sheldon Harnick, responsible for lyrics). The three daughters sing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” as the matchmaker of the village, Yente (a very funny performance by Alix Korey), weaves in and out of the action, seeking to ply her wares.

Other tuneful and moving numbers include “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” and “Far From the Home I Love.”

Very much a part of the action is Golde (Jessica Hecht), who plays Tevye’s stern and no-nonsense wife, but strikes a strong note of sympathy as she sings the duet “Do You Love Me” with Tevye.

Enough cannot be said of Danny Burstein, who brings a rich level of warmth, humanity, and decency to his portrayal of Tevye, which solidly anchors the entire show.

(L – R) The ghost of Grandma Tzeitel (Lori Wilner) visits Golde (Jessica Hecht) and Tevye (Danny Burstein) in a dream. (Joan Marcus)
(L–R) The ghost of Grandma Tzeitel (Lori Wilner) visits Golde (Jessica Hecht) and Tevye (Danny Burstein) in a dream. (Joan Marcus)

Underlying everything is the ever-present fear of displacement, as pogroms are rife throughout the land. Finally it is announced that the entire village must pack their belongings and leave Anatevka, forever. We see Tevye pack his horseless cart and prepare solemnly for the terrible journey.

We see, or sense, the long line of refugees who must travel forlornly from the only home they have ever known. One can’t help but think of what’s happening today in many places in the world, in Syria, for example, as people are uprooted, often violently.

We see, or sense, the long line of refugees who must travel forlornly from the only home they have ever known.

But “Fiddler” does not end despondently. There is an underlying sense that because of the vibrancy of many of the characters—the daughters and their husbands, for example—they will find a place elsewhere, possibly in America, the New World, to plant new roots.

Production elements are superb. In addition to Bartlett Sher’s highly skilled directorial hand, there is the remarkable choreography by Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter, which brightens up the stage whenever his work is present. It is vivid and passionate, and the terrific dancers seem to really love performing it.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes capture just the right note of, dare I say, tradition, with a beauty that keeps them from looking shabby, as might be expected given the play’s setting. Michael Yeargan’s sets are suitably spare, highlighted by Donald Holder’s lighting design.

An must-see production for lovers of musicals and non-musicals alike.

‘Fiddler on the Roof’
Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com
Open run

Diana Barth writes for various publications, including her own New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at DiaBarth@juno.com