Fiddler on the Roof Returns, This Time in Yiddish
Joel Grey directs the classic musical in the language Tevye would have spoken in Anatevka.
A Fiddler on the Roof performed completely in Yiddish? Sounds meshugge, no? On the one hand, the language is the native tongue of the Sholem Aleichem source material. On the other, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's score and Joseph Stein's English-language script is beloved by generations. But the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene's transcendent new production of the classic musical brings us closer to Tevye, Golde, and the good, pious citizens of Anatevka than we've ever been before.
Fiddler Afn Dakh, directed by Joel Grey at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, was created in 1965 by Shraga Friedman. Friedman, an actor-translator who immigrated to Israel from Warsaw at the start of World War II, presents a version of the script and score that captures the essence of the original while not being slavishly literal. He quotes directly from Aleichem's "Tevye the Dairyman" stories in order to retain the emotional texture of Stein's book when there's no direct word-for-word conversion. The spirit of Harnick's lyrics is intact, even if, for the purposes of scansion, "If I Were a Rich Man" becomes "Ven Ikh Bin a Rotshild," or "If I Were a Rothschild," a common Yiddish expression that means the same thing.
Grey's production takes place on a near-empty stage, where tables and chairs do all the physical work. The largely unadorned set by Beowulf Boritt and plain shtetl costumes by Ann Hould-Ward allow the language — written, spoken, and played — to shine. Even if you don't understand what the actors are saying, once the 15-piece orchestra strikes up those familiar melodies, you won't even need to look at the supertitles.
The result is an intensely moving experience. The struggles of Tevye (Steven Skybell), who has to bend from his rigid Jewish traditions in order to ensure the happiness of his family, are even more impactful in his character's native language. When the residents of Anatevka are forced to leave their homeland, this production allows you to see the moment in which this "dead" language started to take a turn towards obscurity. That's not to say this Fiddler is all dour. It's a well-balanced staging that goes for the emotional guts but doesn't sacrifice the musical comedy.
Skybell is as larger-than-life a Tevye as we could want, his one-sided monologues with God delivered with gusto, his big numbers and scenes filled with good humor. But he's also a beautifully conflicted Tevye, whose convictions are easily swayed by his palpable love for his wife, Golde (Mary Illes, capturing the warm Yiddisha mama to a T), and their five daughters. In this way, he's turned Tevye into a human being.
The rest of the cast create similar portrayals. Jackie Hoffman was born to play Yente the matchmaker and she doesn't disappoint, even in Yiddish. Rachel Zatcoff's Tsaytl is a study in presence, her heart always on her sleeve as she stands up to her parents so she can marry Motl Kamzoyl (Ben Liebert), a lowly tailor, instead of the wealthy butcher Leyzer-Volf (Bruce Sabath). Liebert isn't as big a Motl as we've seen in the past; in fact, he's near tears with pride and happiness at the end of his sensitive "Miracle of Miracles" ("Nisimlekh-Veniflo'oys"). You will be, too, and often in this production, thanks to the glorious voices of the ensemble, the lush orchestra under the baton of Zalmen Mlotek, and the crystal-clear sound design of Dan Moses Schreier.
In letting the material speak for itself, the contemporary resonances of Fiddler on the Roof arise inherently from Grey's production, without the frying-pan literalism of the last Broadway revival (no red Gore-Tex parkas are needed here). It becomes an even more emotional evening when it hits you that you're watching a musical about Jews being expelled from their country in a theater inside of a Holocaust museum that is just a glance away from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. L'chaim indeed.