All of which is to say that Harvey Fierstein's previous musical theater assignment and his present one, replacing Alfred Molina in David Leveaux's revival of Fiddler, may not be as far apart as they appear. Taking on considerably more distinguished material (not that there's anything wrong with Hairspray) and stepping into peasant clothes and tzitzith formerly donned by Zero Mostel and a host of other estimable actors, Fierstein seems at home. Aided by a superb new stage spouse, Andrea Martin's Golde, he centers the somewhat fragmented energy of Leveaux's revival, focusing our attention where it belongs: on a paterfamilias whipsawed by change, questioning of his creator and not always satisfied by the answers. Fierstein doesn't entirely negate the miscalculations of this prettied-up production, but he does invest it with humor and tenderness that were decidedly lacking in the earnest Molina. Having also seen Mostel (at the end of his unruly final tour, giving an unruly performance that turned Fiddler into Hellzapoppin'), Paul Lipson (proficient but boring), Herschel Bernardi (excellent), and Molina, I can say that Fierstein's Tevye is one of the most personal and touching.
A natural storyteller, this Tevye savors his standing as a biggish man in a little village -- not its smartest citizen but one of its most popular, always ready with a quip or a homemade Biblical explanation for a crisis. Expressive with his eyes and his surprisingly lithe bulk, Fierstein is most riveting in his many conversations with God. He talks to God like a friend, quizzing and joshing and joking, and we can see his entire thought process writ large on his genial, frequently smiling, orthodontically challenged face. Fierstein's line readings are original; for example, "So what would have been so terrible if I had a small…[long pause as he searches for just the right word]...fortune?" He's one of the most nakedly emotional Tevyes, unafraid to display his boundless love for his five daughters or his rage as their tradition-challenging forays batter away at his value system. And is Fierstein a convincing paternal figure? You bet -- even if his daughters seem a couple of gene pools removed from his own.
A singer he is not. Fierstein's "biddi biddi bums" in "If I Were a Rich Man" are little more than clearings of the throat, and he's forced to octave up or down at times. His voice is so deep and raspy to begin with that you fear he won't be able to reach Jerry Bock's low notes -- and, sometimes, he doesn't. But then, this is a light-voiced Fiddler overall. (Sally Murphy's Tzeitel and Robert Petkoff's Perchik make some particularly unpleasant noises.) It's the acting chops that really get a workout here.
In this respect, Fierstein is lucky to be playing off a pro like Martin, whose Golde is effortlessly funny and real. A wary mother figure of simple wants and limitless skepticism, Martin's Golde cuts to the chase in any argument and uses practical acumen to puncture any theory that she doesn't share. This Tevye and Golde seem very, very married, which may be why Martin's and Fierstein's "Do You Love Me?" is so exquisite; when he asks her the question, she's flummoxed because it's something she has truly never thought about. At song's end, when both sing, "It doesn't change a thing," the line earns a previously undiscovered laugh because it's delivered not as an endearment but as a warning. Lovely work. (Watching Fierstein and Martin, you may think of Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows in a Honeymooners rerun or, if you're old enough, Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi. Their vaudeville rhythms seem perfectly appropriate for this couple; maybe once they get to America, they'll make it on the Orpheum Circuit.)
This Fiddler remains set in an oddly glamorous Anatevka, with ornate Russian lanterns inexplicably dropping and rising from graceful white birches and with a supporting cast that ranges from solid to unforgivable. John Cariani as a hyperkinetic Motel, mugging and skittering around the stage like a Max Fleischer cartoon, has been encouraged to go broader yet; his behavior is now worlds removed from anything human. Nancy Opel's Yente somehow manages to quash all the humor in this town busybody, and the new song that Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote for her character hardly equals the one it replaced. (Still, we should be grateful that they're collaborating again.) On the other hand, David Wohl is a strong Lazar Wolf and Stephen Lee Anderson an interestingly conflicted Constable, his reserves of humanity at constant war with his inner martinet.
Joseph Stein's book and the leftovers of Jerome Robbins' original staging ideas remain masterpieces of musical storytelling: There's not a wasted moment in this show, and the three hours fly by. But every Fiddler finally sits on the tired, overworked shoulders of its Tevye. Those who perceived Fierstein's presence here as stunt casting will have to eat their words. Though his is not the most vocally secure Tevye, Fierstein has performed a valuable service to this revival: He has relocated, and even fortified, Fiddler's potentially boundless heart.