Joel Grey, Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the ranks of the expert directors who bring out the greatness of the classic musicals.
The show is FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and it couldn’t have been all that easy for Grey to stage. His cast was required to do it in a foreign language that virtually none actually speaks; thus, the performers had to learn their lines and lyrics phonetically.
And that language? You’ll know that as soon as you hear the name of the company that’s presenting the show: The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
What makes Grey’s production extra-extraordinary is that he has found the perfect balance between the show’s comedy and tragedy. When Joseph Stein wrote his adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, he aimed to make us grin, chuckle and laugh shortly before turning us grim-faced at a serious and often life-altering moment. Only minutes later, he returned us to belly laughs and then got us to tear up seconds later.
The feeling is not unlike a baseball game when one team is up in its half-inning only to give way to the other for ITS half-inning – and Grey shows he certainly knows how to play ball. As a result, one of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics in his most famous song — “Sunrise, Sunset,” of course — speaks for the entire enterprise: “Laden with happiness and tears.”
Steven Skybell (who somewhat resembles Stephen Sondheim) is a splendid Tevye, especially in his scenes with Lazer-Volf. (We’ll use the Yiddish spellings of the characters’ names as they are in the program.) When the septuagenarian butcher tells Tevye that he wants to marry the milkman’s twentysomething daughter Tsaytl (an excellent Rachel Zatcoff), the look on Skybell’s face is somewhere between incredulous and repulsed. One drink after another makes Tevye change his mind, and Skybell convincingly shows us the trajectory.
At the wedding when Tevye sees Layzer, Skybell shows us he’s both sorry that he went back on his solemn word and grateful that the man is gracious under the circumstances. (Well, at least at first …) Later, when Hodl tells him that her fiancé Perchik has been sent to Siberia, Skybell’s expression reveals that he’d already inferred that and had feared the brash young rebel had met that fate.
Seldom has a Golde been as tender as Mary Illes when early on she solemnly imparts to Tsaytl the harsh realities of her daughters’ very limited marital options. As Hodl, Stephanie Lynne Mason expresses a moment of outrage after Tsaytl says she has her eye on the rabbi’s son before she decides to rebut that she has every right to look his way.
There’s not much scenery; Beowulf Boritt has offered three large pieces of fabric and left it at that. In “Anatevka,” the townspeople tell us of their meager possessions; here they have even fewer, if we judge by the almost-always bare stage. However, everyone entering and exiting a “house” with no walls did make certain to touch an invisible mezuzah.
Do not assume, however, that there was more scenery and Jackie Hoffman chewed it all up during rehearsals while creating her Yente the Matchmaker. After all, so many Yentes have done just that since 1964.
No: Hoffman is giving us a finely tuned, completely restrained and – most important of all — utterly human performance. That doesn’t means she isn’t funny; she most certainly is. How gracious of her to accept a role that seems large but really isn’t; with the three daughters planning their own weddings, a matchmaker isn’t often on stage. Nevertheless, Hoffman winds up reiterating the essence of that quintessential show-biz advice: Always Leave ‘Em Wantin’ More.
There are, as you’d expect and hope, supertitles – both in English and in Russian. This might be a nice outing for Trump and Putin the next time both are in town.
Those who know the cast albums, be it casually or word-for-word, will have fun checking out one of two electronic boards to see what Shraga Friedman added to or subtracted from Stein’s libretto and Harnick’s lyrics. See if you can pick out what songs now sport these lines:
“He sold him a she-goat, but he went home with a he-goat.”
“With a proper double chin and belly.”
“Wasn’t it yesterday they were playing in the yard?”
“To be with him is my destiny, because for me, he is home.”
Well, as any lyricist will tell you, setting words to an existing melody is always harder than writing first and putting the composer on the spot.
For “Tevye’s Dream” (also known as “The Tailor Motel Kamzoil”), Grey uses a device he had previously seen in a Harold Prince production. An enormous white sheet hangs from the rafters, behind which are actors behind it who rush toward the screen in order to loom large in silhouette.
Ah, you say, “City on Fire” in SWEENEY TODD. No – Prince used the sheet more than a dozen years earlier when he directed the musical that put Grey on the theatrical map: CABARET.
For during the first weeks of the Boston tryout, after Sally and Cliff had sung “Roommates” — the song that was eventually replaced by “Perfectly Marvelous” – the two went for a walk. From the rafters fell that sheet where a much-larger-than-life prostitute zoomed forward to proposition Cliff. Hitler was also seen rabble-rousing a crowd, and Grey played a legless man in a wheelchair begging the couple for money.
Anyone who does FIDDLER is honor-bound to follow Jerome Robbins’ original choreography; them’s the rules. Yet in conjunction with choreographer Stas Kmiec, Grey has Pertschik (a staunch Daniel Kahn) and Hodl finish their tradition-shattering dance with them nose-to-nose. It’s love at first dance.
How nice, too, that a show with 26 performers found money to afford an orchestra of 12. The always reliable Zalmen Mlotek manages once again to display through his conducting all the love that he has for Jerry Bock’s perfectly evocative music.
Many theatergoers may be reluctant to travel all the way to Battery Park to see a show they’ve already seen umpteen times and in a language they don’t remotely know. However, the many who do attend will be astonished at how Joel Grey and The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene have brought it all, to quote Tevye and Lazer-Volf, “To life!”