At age 73, Chaim Topol has played Tevye the milkman in the musical Fiddler on the Roof more than 2,500 times, including the show’s West End production in 1967, its 1990 Broadway revival, and Norman Jewison’s 1971 film version. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he often seems like a bored zombie in the show’s current national tour, now stopping briefly at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Unlike with David Leveaux’s 2004 Broadway revival, which attempted to visually reimagine much of the musical, director-choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes has faithfully reproduced Jerome Robbins’ original staging from top to bottom, and the production maintains its share of enthusiasm and energy over its three-hour running time. While Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s incredible songs retain their brilliance and emotional pull — and detailed production numbers such as “Tradition” and “The Dream” remain astounding — some of Joseph Stein’s book feels stale and awkward, especially the subplot over daughter Chava’s choice to marry the gentile Fyedka.
Moreover, the show looks a little moldy. Steve Gillam’s set design, which consists mainly of three-dimensional huts that spin on and offstage, is serviceable at best. An exterior frame around the stage depicting menorahs and other Jewish items looks unnecessarily out of place.
But the production’s biggest deficit is its star, who — when not seemingly sleepwalking through the role — has added many broad routines in order to gain as many laughs as possible. Most annoying of all is Topol’s insistence on slowly repeating the same line three or four times for extra laughs, and raising his voice to a falsetto on every punchline.
While he can no longer belt the high notes in “If I Were a Rich Man” or “Tradition,” his baritone voice otherwise sounds exactly the same as it did in the film version, adding a nostalgic touch that complements the familiar character of the entire production. And thanks to his long beard and cap, you can’t really see how much he’s aged over the years.
As Tevye’s daughters, Rena Stober (Tzeitel), Jamie Davis (Hodel) and Alison Walla (Chava) look pale, plain, and pretty much all the same. Susan Cella underplays the role of Tevye’s wife Golde, creating an awkward balance between the long married couple. On the other hand, Mary Stout displays terrific comic delivery as Yente the Matchmaker, and in a wonderfully animated cameo, Sean Patrick Doyle plays Fruma-Sarah while dressed like a giant green goblin covered in jewelry.