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Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish

A deeply moving version of the enduringly popular musical about a milkman, his wife and their five daughters—in Yiddish.

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Steven Skybell as Tevye and Jennifer Babiak as Golde in a scene from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” now at Stage 42 (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

Mark Dundas Wood

Mark Dundas Wood, Critic

What is perhaps most extraordinary about Fiddler on the Roof—the 1964 Broadway musical based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, with libretto by Joseph Stein and songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick—is that a tale about an impoverished Jewish family in Russia in the early 1900’s became so thoroughly embraced by international audiences of various cultural and religious backgrounds. For a time, the original, Tony-winning production had the distinction of being the longest-running Broadway show ever, and there have since been several Broadway revivals, as well as a 1971 film adaptation which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

This Yiddish-language version—in a translation by Shraga Friedman, with English and Russian supertitles—was staged last year by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage under the direction of Joel Grey. (Theaterscene.net critic Joel Benjamin wrote about that engagement:  http://www.theaterscene.net/musicals/offbway/yiddish-fiddler-on-the-roof/joel-benjamin/ ) Now the production has reopened at Stage 42 on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row.

The property is now more than a half-century old. But this production makes it seem as though the 1964 iteration were merely an English-language version of a classic from even longer ago. There’s a greater feeling of immediacy than perhaps ever before. Hearing the characters speak and sing in the tongue that their real-life 1905 contemporaries would have used is deeply moving. What a shame that so many speakers of Yiddish from decades past never got the chance to experience the musical in this guise.

The company of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” now at Stage 42 (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The libretto tells the tale of a humble family living in Imperial Russia in the fictional village of Anatevke. Milkman Tevye (Steven Skybell) and wife Golde (Jennifer Babiak) are raising five daughters, the elder three of whom are of marriageable age. The local matchmaker, Yente (Jackie Hoffman), is on the case, trying to round up suitable husbands. But times are changing. Although, at the top of the show, everyone in the village sings a stirring anthem to the status quo, “Traditsye” (“Tradition”), Tevye and Golde’s girls—Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason) and Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy)—are becoming infected by the new-fangled notion of romantic love. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing in a bigger way, with anti-Semitism on the rise in the area.

Skybell gives us a virile, witty Tevye. As his daughters find increasingly unacceptable bridegrooms, the milkman fends off his disappointment with self-deprecating humor. This makes it even more shattering when he finally finds himself hurling words of condemnation at Khave’s choice of a mate—a gentile named Fyedka (Cameron Johnson)—and shunning her, as dictated by religious tradition.

Babiak’s Golde seems to be one of the most respected wives in the village—if there were a PTA in Anatevke, she’d likely be on the steering committee. In this production, there’s no sense that Tevye feels nagged or bullied by his wife. He dreads Golde’s disapproval not so much because he’s afraid of her wrath but because he cares so much about her feelings. And there’s a sense that the pair are intrigued by and open to some of the once-unthinkable deviations from convention. After Hodl risks scandal by dancing with a man, the scholar Pertshik (Drew Seigla), at the party following Tsaytl’s wedding to tailor Motl Kamzoyl (the intensely earnest Ben Liebert), Tevye and Golde waste no time in getting up on the dance floor together themselves.

Jackie Hoffman as Yente in a scene from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” now at Stage 42 (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The supporting cast is solid. In the early song “Shadkhnte, Shadkhnte” (“Matchmaker, Matchmaker”), Zatcoff, Mason and Neddy (along with Raquel Nobile and Samantha Hahn as the younger daughters) let us see the deep bonds of sisterly love in this family. Seigla’s singing as Pertshik is especially warm and strong. And Hoffman, the best-known performer in the cast, is an audience favorite. Knowing just what aggrieved reactions she’s likely to have from moment to moment, the crowd giggles in anticipation. And she never disappoints.

Music director and conductor Zalmen Mlotek’s fine orchestra is a little bit shtetl street corner and a little bit Shubert Alley. Staś Kmieć builds on the work of the original 1964 choreographer, Jerome Robbins, to make the dance numbers—especially the famous bottle dance—absolutely thrilling. Director Grey keeps “der fidler” (Lauren Jeanne Thomas) prominently positioned throughout the show—often upstage center. Her playing seems at times to coax and coach Tevye through the personal journey he’s on.

Beowulf Boritt’s unit set with its parchment-paper wrapping provides flexibility for depiction of various locales in and around Tevye and Golde’s home. The work of lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski is most evident in the ghostly nightmare scene in the first act, during which monstrous silhouettes appear in Tevye and Golde’s bedchamber.

Raquel Nobile, Rosie Jo Neddy, Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynne Mason and Samantha Hahn as Tevye’s daughters in a scene from the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish” now at Stage 42 (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

The tattered gown for the chief figure in that nightmare, the towering and frightful Frume-Sore, represents costume designer Ann Hould-Ward’s most glorious achievement here, but her work is impressive throughout. She starts with a palette that is virtually all white, black and gray, except for the blood-red accents on the uniforms of Russian officers. But eventually—as the family and the village begin to break with their traditions—we begin to see bits of sky blue, mustard yellow, burgundy.

This Fiddler on the Roof is recommended to anyone who appreciates thoughtfully staged musical theater. Even if you’ve seen multiple productions of the show over the years, you’ll want to catch it. It’s a special occasion if ever there was one.

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (extended through January 5, 2020)

The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com

Running time:  three hours including one intermission

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Mark Dundas Wood
About Mark Dundas Wood (41 Articles)
Mark Dundas Wood contributes to the Bistro Awards website and The Clyde Fitch Report in addition to Theaterscene.net. Previously he wrote for American Theatre and Backstage. Credits as dramaturg include New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James’ "The Tragic Muse" appeared at the Metropolitan Playhouse. He received an MFA in theater (dramaturgy) from Columbia University.
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