Monday, April 19, 2010

Review of 'Fiddler on the Roof' at D.C.'s National Theatre

This review of Fiddler on the Roof is based on the performance last Wednesday evening, April 14, and is intended to appear in the next edition of The Metro Herald in Alexandria, Virginia.

Reevaluating ‘Fiddler on the Roof’
Harvey Fierstein Stars in National Tour’s D.C. Engagement
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

It’s time to reassess one of the central claims of the classic American musical play, Fiddler on the Roof. The current engagement at Washington’s National Theatre offers a chance to look at the play with fresh eyes, adding a different sort of vitality to a work that is so familiar that we may have begun taking it and its characters for granted.

Tony®-winning Broadway actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein is the star of the latest national tour of Fiddler, playing the role of Tevye, the Dairyman, a character created a century ago by Yiddish short-story writer Sholom Aleichem and beloved by millions of readers and playgoers around the world.

Tevye sings one of Fiddler’s biggest hit songs, “If I Were a Rich Man,” in which he first complains of his own poverty and then daydreams about what it would be like to be a wealthy man.

Tevye’s life, however, belies his plaintive pleas of poverty. Digging deeper into the text reveals that, far from being a poor man, Tevye is a man with assets and means – someone we might call a working-class entrepreneur. Indeed, nearly all of Tevye’s neighbors in Anatevka are working- or middle-class and not at all poor in any objective sense.

Although Tevye’s wife, Golde, tells one of their five daughters “you’re a girl from a poor family” and although Tevye says to God, “it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either,” the circumstances of their family are not those of poverty, especially not the sort of poverty one would expect in a pre-industrial, traditional society.

First, Tevye is a self-employed farmer. He owns at least one horse and other livestock –probably several cows. Not only that, he has sufficient cattle to meet his customers’ needs and he can every so often sell a surplus cow. (Tevye assumes that the butcher wants to buy his “new milk cow,” which implies he has old milk cows and that he has enough cash to periodically buy a new one.)

Second, Tevye is sufficiently secure economically that he is able to hire a tutor for his daughters (“food for lessons,” he says to the itinerant Perchik) at a time when girls were expected to stay uneducated. His third-eldest daughter, Chava, has enough pocket money to buy books for pleasure reading.

Third, when the Russian authorities force Tevye and his neighbors to leave Anatevka, he is given three days to sell his property. What does Tevye own? A house, a barn, and a plot of land big enough to feed his livestock. His ownership is clear enough that he has the courage – and the right – to order the constable off his land while he still owns it.

Fourth, Tevye has disposable income above the subsistence level. He husbands his assets so effectively that he can buy luxuries (candlesticks, goose pillows, and a feather bed) as gifts for his daughter on her wedding day and pay for the food and drink and musicians that make a wedding celebration, too.

To return to “If I Were a Rich Man,” Tevye is not so much asking to be a “rich man” as he is expressing his desire to be a “man of leisure” – a person who does not have to work for a living and who can enjoy a mansion, servants, and free time for prayer and contemplation.

There is no question that Tevye is not “rich” in the sense of a Rockefeller or a Rothschild. Neither is he poor. His family has enough food to eat – indeed, they have enough food that they can routinely share it with strangers and friends who visit for the Sabbath.

Tevye works hard, to be sure, and like any dairy farmer must rise before dawn to feed and milk the cows, plus toil through the rest of the day to make cheese and butter and deliver his goods to his customers. This is not a life of impoverishment. It is a life that produces something of value to trade for other things of value. It is essentially middle-class.

The other characters we meet in Fiddler on the Roof are in similar economic circumstances. Except for Nachum, the beggar, nearly everyone in the play has means and assets.

Mordcha and his wife own a tavern, where they serve anyone from the village, Jew and Gentile alike. Lazar Wolf is a self-employed butcher who could afford to buy strings of pearls for his wife. Motel Kamzoil (Tevye’s eventual son-in-law) owns his own tailor shop and has saved enough money to buy a modern sewing machine. Yussel is a hatmaker. Even the widow, Yente, is an independent woman who provides a service much in demand in a traditional society like Anatevka’s – she is a matchmaker (much like that independent woman of the Broadway season that preceded the premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, Dolly Levi).

We are told, over and over again, that Tevye’s family and the people of Anatevka are poor, but what we see contradicts what we are told.

All that said, it’s not possible to gainsay Fiddler on the Roof’s other theme: what happens when modernity intrudes upon tradition, and the topsy-turvy world that results (or, at least, that is perceived by those who have to engage the intrusion).

Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905, the time of the first Russian revolution and, consequently, an era of turmoil and upheaval. For centuries Anatevka has been isolated from the outside world and thus, its inhabitants think, the village need not concern itself with the politics of far away. Those politics arrive with a growl and a bite that are unwelcome, and the people of Anatevka are subjected to a pogrom that eventually results in their exile.

Yet the hidden future-story offers a bittersweet life beyond the final curtain.

Through government-induced violence, Tevye and his family lose their home in Anatevka, which, though fictional, in real life would have stood in eastern Poland or western Ukraine.

By being forced to leave their ancestral home in 1905 and emigrating overseas, the people of Anatevka – including Tevye and his family – were spared the scorched-earth battles of World War I. They were spared the horrors of Stalin’s induced starvation of the 1930s. (As a landowner, Tevye would almost certainly have been executed as a capitalist exploiter along with the other kulaks.) They were spared the torture and genocide of the Nazis.

They were, in fact, the lucky ones.

The current production of Fiddler on the Roof at the National Theatre is competent, engaging, and entertaining. The music as performed is rich and robust. The sets and costumes evoke Marc Chagall’s visions of shtetl life without being slavishly imitative.

As Tevye, Harvey Fierstein brings multiple layers and three dimensions to the stage. Although he sometimes mugs a bit – one critic sitting near me complained about too much “shtick” – it is all within the boundaries he creates for Tevye. And Fierstein never goes off book or out-of-character, as his predecessor in the role, Zero Mostel, was wont to do. (Mostel was said to walk on stage, turn to the audience, break the fourth wall, and announce the scores of current sporting events: “Yankees 3, Orioles 2, at the top of the eighth.”)

Susan Cella’s Golde is stern but sufficiently affectionate that the audience can understand all the subtext of her duet with Tevye, “Do You Love Me?”

All three of the oldest daughters – Kaitlin Stilwell as Tzeitel, Jamie Davis as Hodel, and Deborah Grausman as Chava – bring sprightly maturity to their roles. Each of their characters brings an incremental step toward the modern world into Tevye’s purview, and each of them does so in a believable and (in Chava’s case especially) poignant manner.

Zal Owen, still new to this company, has a spring in his step and a youthful exuberance that fit Motel Kamzoil like a glove. Matthew Marks, as Fyedka, looks like he just stepped from a Disney Channel special on Tsarist Russia, but plays his (underwritten) part well. New York theatre stalwart Mary Stout has a lot of fun portraying the gabby Yente, the Matchmaker. She makes a stereotypical character believable.

If there is a weak link among the principals, it is Colby Foytik as Perchik, who sometimes seems to swallow his notes, especially in his big number, “Now I Have Everything.” To be fair, we might have caught him on a bad night, especially since it is a hard allergy season in Washington.

A note to those who care about these things: Although Harvey Fierstein starred on Broadway in the Tony®-nominated Big Stem revival of Fiddler on the Roof five years ago, this is a completely different production. That revival was directed by David Leveaux. This tour is directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, who was part of the original Broadway cast and is recreating Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography.

Other elements of this production are different from the recent revival: set design is by Steve Gilliam, costume design by Tony Ray Hicks, and lighting design is by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz. (Their counterparts for the revival were, respectively, Tom Pye, Vicki Mortimer, and Brian McDevitt.)

This is not to say that one version is better than the other; just that they are different, and that some people might infer that because Harvey Fierstein was the star of both that this production is a recreation of the revival.

Fiddler on the Roof continues at the National Theatre in Washington through May 2. Performances are on Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and on Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices begin at $51.50 and are on sale at the National Theatre box office or through Telecharge at or by calling (800) 447-7400.

Photo credit:  Joan Marcus.  Courtesy of the National Theatre.

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