Steven Skybell Is a Tevye for the Ages in Exceptional Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof
Joel Grey's incomparable production moves to new digs uptown, but hasn't lost its luster.
Talk about a miracle of miracles. Eight months after kicking off an initial seven-week engagement at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Joel Grey's Yiddish-language revival of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein's Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish, A Fidler Afn Dakh) is still going strong after moving from Battery Park to Midtown West's Stage 42. Admittedly, this commercial venue doesn't have the same spiritual atmosphere as the theater inside New York's "Living Memorial to the Holocaust," and the Ollie's Noodle Shop across the street isn't nearly as evocative a sight as Ellis Island. But this peerless revival, starring Steven Skybell as the best Tevye imaginable, could easily wind up as the definitive version of this 55-year-old musical.
Translated by Shraga Friedman, this iteration of the beloved classic roots itself in the traditions of Sholem Alecheim's source material. Taking his cues from Alecheim's original "Tevye the Dairyman" stories, Friedman's dialogue and lyrics aren't literally faithful to the work of Stein and Harnick, but instead capture both their essence and that of the old-world Jewish community. "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.
As a result, this Fiddler brings us closer to the citizens of Anatevka than ever before, removing itself from the hoary rituals of musical comedy and shifting in tone to become a wrenching drama. The plight of Tevye, who must come to grips with a changing world as his three eldest daughters (Rachel Zatcoff as Tsaytl, Stephanie Lynne Mason as Hodl, and Rosie Jo Neddy as Khave) break with custom and marry for love, while the specter of politically motivated, anti-Jewish violence hangs over their heads, has never seemed more authentic than it does in its mamaloshen ("mother tongue"). Combined with Grey's majestically simple, actor-friendly staging — Beowulf Boritt's set is little more than tables and chairs — and Skybell's awe-inspiring Tevye, this production proves that sometimes all you need to make a connection is sterling emotional clarity.
This lucidity is present in all of the performances, to the point that you don't even really need Motl Didner's English supertitles to understand what the actors are saying. It's all there in the naches we feel when Motl the tailor (the sweetly befuddled Ben Liebert) stands up to Tevye to earn Tsaytl's hand in marriage, and in the surprising way Jackie Hoffman manages to tear our hearts out when her Yente suddenly transforms from larger-than-life matchmaker to stooped and sickly itinerant. When Tevye and Golde (the warm Jennifer Babiak) share a quiet moment with "Do You Love Me?," performed here as a genuinely difficult conversation instead of a moment of charming bickering, it is particularly moving.
It helps that Skybell's Tevye is so far from what we're used to, with actions that are infused with the very human quality of fear. Frightened of change and what it means for him, his family, and his beliefs, this Tevye must gather all the courage he has and bravely dive into a world where the rewards and consequences are altogether unknown. In doing so, Skybell unlocks the human being inside a character that in the past has been played as a comedic blowhard. Like the production itself, his portrayal is unquestionably beautiful, thoroughly devastating, and completely satisfying.