The producers of the newly opened revival of Fiddler on the Roof found an almost ideal Tevye -- except for the singing. Alfred Molina is a worthy star who acts the role to perfection, but his voice -- even heavily amplified -- never opens up with full-throated passion. Still, in lieu of other Tevye candidates, we'll take him gladly.
The fact that Molina isn't Jewish doesn't matter a whit; he looks right and that's all that matters. Randy Graff is well cast as his wife, Golde, but how did these two parents give birth to the daughters of Ireland? When the kids assemble to sing "Matchmaker," it's almost as if we're watching Dancing at Lughnasa. (Again, it doesn't matter if these roles are cast with Jews or not; what matters is whether or not they look like they could be Jewish.) As it happens, Sally Murphy as Tzeitel gives the best performance among the daughters, but why fight an uphill battle against one's appearance when there are so many other performers who are far more right for your role? Nancy Opel is perfectly cast as Yente, the matchmaker; Robert Petkoff is impressively fiery as the radical Perchik; and David Ayers is charismatic as Chava's Russian suitor, Fyedka.
This Fiddler has one advantage that most revivals don't: The show itself is a truly great musical with a beautifully crafted book and songs of virtually mythic proportions. And it's a show that speaks eloquently, not just to Jews but to everyone in the American melting pot. This is a musical fable about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Here they are in Anatevka, alive with their traditions, just as the sweep of history changed their destiny and sent them hurtling into the 20th century.
We come to Fiddler expecting a great deal because, for so many, it meant so much. David Leveaux's direction is sometimes thrilling, sometimes maddening. The production touches greatness when Tevye rejects Chava (Tricia Paoluccio) for marrying outside the faith; she is overwhelmed and driven away when the villagers cross the stage like an avenging army in a reprise of "Tradition." On the other hand, Leveaux has directed Motel (John Cariani) to overact to such a degree that one can't imagine why Tzeitel would be attracted to this goon. Rather than sweet and shy, Motel seems like he's on a three-day coffee jag.
Having the orchestra on stage smacks of the Encores! influence and works against the theatricality of the show. The spare, Chekovian set designed by Tom Pye establishes the somber mood of this production, as does the evocative lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Most impressive are the costumes by Vicki Mortimer; the ripped, frayed, shoes worn by the actors prove that there is art in the details.
When all is said and done, however, one goes to the Minskoff Theatre to enjoy Joseph Stein's book, Jerry Bock's music, and Sheldon Harnick's lyrics. These elements, along with Jerome Robbins's choreography, are so compelling that it's hard to screw up the show. This is not a great production of Fiddler but neither is it a catastrophe.
The Legendary Betty Buckley
Too often, by the time one has become a legend, the talent for which one gained legendary status is already on the wane. The exception that proves the rule is now playing at the Café Carlyle through March 27. Her name is Betty Buckley.
In an eclectic show titled Portraits, Buckley is not only at the top of her vocal and interpretive talents, she seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself -- and that feeling is infectious. Her patter, delivered with a dry sense of humor, is consistently funny. A consummate actress, her song set-ups never sound written; she could not be more natural when she's talking to the audience. And when she sings, there is no one that can touch her. As was not the case in some of her recent cabaret acts, here she occasionally opens up and lets that trumpet of a voice wail. The look on her face when she takes a breath before she sends a big note soaring might be described as joyful.
The show includes songs by composers as diverse as Lyle Lovett, Rodgers and Hart, and Sting. Underlying the music is a certain spirituality; Buckley believes in these songs and she makes us believe in them, too. She's helped along the way by musical director Kenny Werner's often inspired arrangements. The trio of Werner on piano, Tony Marino on bass, and Todd Reynolds on violin is magical. In particular, the inclusion of the violin lifts some of these songs to a level of ethereal beauty. When Buckley sings "Dimming of the Day" (Richard Thompson) with a bluegrass fiddle playing underneath, it's stunningly gorgeous. Her rendition of Sting's "Fragile" is a hypnotically rhythmic delight and her deeply sensitive take on Amanda McBroom's "Dreamin'" is without peer.
For many years now, Buckley has used a music stand. She occasionally glances down at the music to reassure herself, but her acting skills are such that it's scarcely a distraction. Whether she's singing the sly and sexy "M-O-N-E-Y" (Lyle Lovett) or the piercing "I Am a Town" (Mary Chapin Carpenter), she displays a talent so beguiling and so intense that you'll wish the show would never end. That's why Betty Buckley is a legend.
Cast Party Postscript
Let it never be said that Jim Caruso doesn't know how to throw a major bash. His last Cast Party extravaganza at Ars Nova on Monday night featured appearances by Liza Minnelli (who got up to sing three songs, including "God Bless the Child") and Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole, among others.
As we wrote last week, Caruso is in search of a more suitable home for this exalted evening of entertainment, which ran for a year in the King Kong Room of The Supper Club before its brief but exciting stint at Ars Nova. Here's wishing him good luck in finding that home soon. We'll definitely keep you posted!
[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.]