Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O'Donnell in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O'Donnell
in Fiddler on the Roof
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Rosie O'Donnell, who looks like the daughter Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy never gave birth to, often seems to have two diverse personalities. There's the loudmouth show-off, last on view in Manhattan as the producer of the ill-fated, $10 million Taboo. Then there's the Barbra Streisand-loving comedian who appreciates other performers so much that she regularly used her talk show to introduce talented newcomers to the public, a benevolent gesture that the showbiz world greatly misses.

Now, O'Donnell has smartly stepped into the role of Golde in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof, melding her two manifestations into one nicely wrought portrayal. The tolerant mother of five daughters and wife of the long-suffering, charismatic Tevye, Golde knows that a woman's place is in the home. (The show's magnificent opening number, "Tradition," clearly lays out the societal/familial demands and expectations.) But she also understands that, within the home and especially around the Sabbath table, she can flaunt her authority -- and she does so with the wave of a hand, the shrug of a shoulder, the lift of an eyebrow.

O'Donnell plays her part with economy and hard-earned savvy. She humors her husband, keeps their daughters in line, chats to Yente the matchmaker, and accommodates herself to the changes going on all around her. In short, she fits into the ensemble with a trouper's aplomb.

Some may be surprised that O'Donnell is hewing to the company line, but she's done it before. She's a responsible actress when she wants to be, as she has proved on Broadway in Grease and Seussical -- and now in Fiddler. Her singing leaves something to be desired, but only in the classic "Sunrise, Sunset" does she really fall short of the mark. She more than makes up for her vocal deficiencies when she does her share of the speak-singing duties in "Do You Love Me?" (This song has got to be one of the great romantic duets for middle-aged couples musical theater history.)

Of course, that duet takes two. O'Donnell is blessed to share it with Harvey Fierstein, who continues to demonstrate his stage mastery as Tevye. Just as Sholom Aleichem's put-upon milkman pulls his cart, Fierstein pulls this show. Without a first-rank Tevye, which this revival didn't boast when it opened, Fiddler is severely hampered. With one, it's a pip -- even in director David Leveaux's excessively Chekhovian production.

In fact, Fierstein is so good that he invites favorable comparison with the tuner's original genius, Zero Mostel, who played the part as a combination of his acclaimed Rhinoceros character and Job. Fierstein brings to Tevye his trademark warmth and a voice that rasps in at least five registers. What he does with a song can't really be called "singing" by any standard definition, but it can definitely be called "putting a number across." In the show's stand-out aria, "If I Were a Rich Man," Fierstein finds a different way to deliver each "biddy-biddy-bom" and make it count.

Still, the acting is his calling-card here. As three of Tevye's daughters find love during the course of the show, the traditionalist learns that the only constant is change and that he must adapt to it as comfortably as possible. At one point, he plaintively wonders, "Can I deny everything I believe?" This moment may be the musical's most telling, and Fierstein brings everything to it.

There's something else to be said for the pairing of Fierstein and O'Donnel in this particular musical. Both stars have been courageous in making known their homosexual orientation and have consistently promulgated the concept of the non-traditional family. In gracing Fiddler, they represent tradition in transition, and it's remarkable to experience this.