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On the Town with Chip Deffaa: From Anatevka to Wales

The warmth and compassion felt in “Fiddler on the Roof” and in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” would be welcome any time, but feel especially welcome during the holiday season.

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The “Fiddler on the Roof” PLAYBILL

[avatar user=”Chip DeFFaa” size=”96″ align=”left”] Chip DeFFaa, Editor-at-Large[/avatar]

Many people travel over the holidays.  I did my “traveling” this year by visiting theatrical productions set in early-20th century Russia and Wales.

I’m speaking, of course, of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish with English supertitles), directed by Joel Grey, and the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, directed by Charlotte Moore.  I’m glad that both of these heartfelt shows—proven audience-pleasers from past years, impeccably staged –were brought back this season.  

Both productions, incidentally, happened to have understudies going on in important roles on the nights that I caught the shows; the understudies in both shows  (Abby Goldfarb playing “Yente” in Fiddler, and Reed Lancaster playing “Dylan Thomas” in A Child’s Christmas in Wales)  gave wholly satisfying performances.

Fiddler–brilliantly directed by Joel Grey—is an unusually impactful production. It’s emotionally rich, moving, and timeless. And wholly believable.  They had me from the first words of the opening number, “Tradition.” (And what a glorious ensemble sound they got!)

Steven Skybell as “Tevye” in National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at New World Stages (Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)

Steven Skybell playing “Tevye” won the Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor when this production was first presented in 2019.  (And the production as a whole won Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics Circle and Outer Critics Circle awards that same season.)   He is an excellent Tevye—earthy, naturalistic, struggling to deal with the hardships of life, and able to leaven the hardships with well-expressed humor.

This is a big production for Off-Broadway, with some two dozen actors in the company, and Zalmen Mlotek conducting 10 musicians in the orchestra.   I don’t speak Yiddish, but the English supertitles would make it easy for anyone to follow along.  I’ve seen Fiddler, in various incarnations, enough times—and I’ve savored the original Broadway cast album since Fiddler first premiered back in the 1960’s—I  didn’t really need to read all of the supertitles.  I quickly got engrossed in the action.   This is one of the greatest of all musicals—the book, music, and lyrics are so strong—it always has rewards to offer.

Grey has told the story clearly and well.  He has a good eye for grouping people on stage, forming some visually striking tableaux.  And the whole production—and this I found most welcome–has more of an appropriately ethnic feel than the last Broadway revival.  I credit not just Grey, who directed the production, but also Mlotek, who is artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene besides being the music director/conductor of this production, and the actors and musicians.  The daughters in this production, for example, are more believably Jewish girls in early 20th century Russia (not just well-trained generic singing actors) than the daughters were in the last Broadway revival.  And the musicians are playing with more traditional Klezmer inflections.  All of this helps.

The story is so familiar I do not think there’s a need for me to retell it here.  It remains touching, and bittersweet, and important.  I’m glad this production has been revived for this season.  And hope it will come back again.

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The Irish Repertory Theatre’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” program

A friend and I got to enjoy Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales,  adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore, at the Irish Repertory Theatre. I’ve enjoyed productions of this show before at the Irish Rep, and I’m glad they’ve brought this holiday favorite back to their jewel-box of a theater.  (I don’t think there’s a more attractive intimate Off-Broadway house than the Irish Rep.)    It’s a handsomely mounted production, well-cast, and evocative. And the Playbill helpfully includes a glossary to explain a few unfamiliar Welsh terms (liked “laverbread,” “craig,” and “bach.”)

But it did my heart good to hear Thomas’ remembrance of Christmas in his boyhood. And hearing “Silent Night” quietly sung in Welsh somehow got to me, too–a reminder of the universality of the themes. An understudy, Reed Lancaster, went on in the role of Dylan Thomas, and was very good. He got well into the spirit of young Thomas.   He’s probably close to 30 in real life, but he made you believe he was a spirited young boy.

A little girl in the cast, Kylie Kuioka, gave her all in a way I found quite charming.  Jay Aubrey Jones’ fine, resonant voice was a treat to hear.  Kerry Conte, Ali Ewoldt, Ashley Robinson, and music director/pianist David Hancock Turner all made commendable contributions.  And John Lee Beatty’s unit set design was simple, elegant, and wholly fitting.  I liked the production a lot.

The last time I saw A Child’s Christmas in Wales at the Irish Rep, it benefitted from the presence in the cast of one of my favorite Broadway performers, John Cullum. He lent a touch of magic; his rich, warm voice, and his great stage presence took the whole production up to a higher level.  I missed him this time.  Players of his stature, of course, are rare.  Everyone in this production was quite good—I can’t complain–but no one had the touch of magic that Cullum brought to the stage last time.

Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly, co-founders of The Irish Repertory Theatre

Still, I’m happy to see this production come back.  Charlotte Moore (artistic director of the Irish Rep) and Ciarán O’Reilly (producing director of the Irish Rep) co-founded this theater company in 1988.    And they’ve maintained wonderfully high standards, year after year.  The work at this prestigious Off-Broadway theater company is mounted with class and with care.

I also appreciate the fact that—showing appropriate concern for everyone’s health—they still require all audience-members to be masked.  (And they provide masks, if you forgot to bring one.)  With Covid on the upswing right now, I’m all the more glad that they maintain that policy.  When I attended Fiddler on the Roof, very few audience members were wearing masks.  And filling theaters with unmasked patrons needlessly facilitates the spread of the coronavirus.

Next month, the Irish Rep will open a new production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame–the play that Beckett (who also wrote Waiting for Godot and other acclaimed works) considered his masterpiece–directed by Ciarán O’Reilly and starring Bill Irwin. I’m very much looking forward to that.

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