by Margaret Croyden

"Fiddler On A New and Shaky Roof "

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Book Joseph Stein
Music: Jerry Bock
Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick
Minskoff Theater, 200 West 45 St.
869-0550, www.nederlander.org
opened 2/26/04
Reviewed March 3, 2004 by Margaret Croyden

The first thing one notices about the new production of "Fiddler On the Roof" is the scenery. If this is a shtetle in old Russia in the 1900's, I would say the Jews were living well. Tall birch trees and Japanese type lanterns decorate the stage and a wooden roof moves up and down--why, I don't know. The set looks like a design appropriate for "The Cherry Orchard." Maybe Tom Pye, the scenic designer, got the aristocratic Russians and the Jewish peasants mixed up.

Then there is the casting. The British director David Leveaux cast Alfred Molina as Tevye, the famous hero of the Sholom Aleichem stories. An impoverished milkman with five daughters who has ironic dialogues with God, Tevye is the archetypical Jew caught up in the life of the ghetto and wondering if God had done him wrong. Mr. Molina is a marvelous actor and his previous performances in "Art" on Broadway and his much overlooked portrayal of Diego Rivera in the movie "Frida" is proof of his talent and versatility. But in "Fiddler" he is unfortunately miscast. He does not have the energy and drive that the character needs, although he catches Tevye's humor, and is sometimes touching in the realistic moments. However, his manner is too reserved, his diction and tone sound contemporary. He is not larger than life as he should be, and his portrayal lacks resonance. Moreover, Molina's use of hard r's and wide a's in his speech gives him a jarring and incongruous mid-Western accent. A New York intonation would have helped. Besides he has a youthful quality; it is hard to believe him as the father of these five girls. "Tradition" and "If I were a Rich Man"--are great songs and Molina does his best, but he and the entire cast, miss what in Jewish lingo is called "Yiddishkeit." Which is an undefinable quality of being Jewish.

Then there are Tevye's daughters: they all look alike, and sing with screechy voices and wear Laura Ashley type clothes. Randy Graff plays Golde, Tevye's wife, who in Yiddish is a "balaboosta" that is, the head of a household, capable of running it better than her husband, despite cooking, cleaning, baking gossiping, and caring for her family. Ms.Graff has no idea of the role; she just yells throughout, and looks and acts like a contemporary West-sider on her way to Starbucks for a coffee klatch. Most annoying is that all the actors speak without the slightest Yiddish rhythm, a rhythm that could have given some life to their roles. Shtetle Jews spoke Yiddish; Sholom Aleichem's stories, from which the musical was adapted, was written in Yiddish. It would have been helpful if the actors had captured some of the common vernacular.

Upgrading the production presented another problem. In the Tevye dream sequence when Tevye convinces Golde that their daughter must marry the poor tailor rather than the rich butcher, the scene in the original "Fiddler" was played without frills. In this production the director offers up a melange of surreal masked animals, a stupid image of the young couple hanging in mid air, an absurd red ladder with another character hanging from it. All of which created a mish-mash of a Mardi Gras. Was director David Leveaux trying to invoke Marc Chagall's painterly images associated with the original production? If so, his only accomplishment was cluttering up the mise en scene, slowing up the narrative, and obscuring its real humor.

About the controversy surrounding this production: Several critics have complained that this revival written by three Jewish men and directed by an all British creative team--the director, the scenic designer, the costume designer and the leading actor--who because they are British (or foreigners) were unable to render the unique Jewish quality of this American musical about a 1900 Jewish shtetle. But more to the point: why did the management hire artists --British or not-- who, in my judgement lacked a truly organic relationship to the material? Is it because there was a desire to downplay the intrinsic Jewish quality of the script and strip it of the obvious Jewish sentiment in order to make the conflict more of "universal" problem rather than a Jewish one, and therefore more appealing to the general Broadway audience? Incidentally, the press release and the program never mention the word "shtetle" but refer to the setting as a "small Russian village." Every knowledgeable person knows that this "village" was no ordinary village but a Jewish ghetto whose inhabitants were isolated, systematically impoverished, and victimized by brutal Russian pogroms. (In this production a few "naughty" Russians break up a wedding and knock down a couple of chairs). In avoiding the real look and atmosphere of a shtetle and in the odd casting, one wonders what British director David Leveaux and his team wanted to express.

Engaging a British team to direct a classic American musical (not the first time) could not avoid raising questions. Maybe it is a real issue, but I for one am not in favor of excluding all kinds of people from directing, acting, and producing all kinds of shows. On the other hand, an artist's background, temperament, and life experience do influence artistic decisions and artistic interpretations. An Irishman has more insight, say, about the Irish Rebellion than one who has not gone through it; a Jew has more of a relationship to Jewishness than a gentile: an African American has more feeling for Black English and racism than a white. While this kind of argument might rattle the politically correct theorists, it is worth considering that certain mixtures do not always work. True, the main conception and style of this "Fiddler" were in the hands of a team--that happened to be British--but the more important issue is that this team had little feeling for Jewishness and allowed the over all tone of the production to be cool--or cold would be a better word. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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