Fiddler On The Roof Reviewed

Being under thirty the only Fiddler on the Roof I remember is the 1971 movie starring Topol in his memorable performance as Tevye, the milkman with the heart of gold. The reason I remember that one is because  I was forced to watch it every year in school, but you know what, I eventually came to love it.  Now I would have the chance to see the show in all it’s glory, where it began, on the stage, and I must admit I was looking forward to it.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on the tale of Sholem Aleichem called Tevye and His Daughters. It tells the story of how a Russian Jew, Tevye, tries to maintain the simplicities of his traditional life, (and his five daughters), in the middle of changing times and coming revolution.

This production has one of the strangest and unique staging I have ever seen. There is no orchestra pit, but instead they are situated just to the right of center stage in the woods. The main set piece is an actual roof that floats above and moves in interesting ways to distinguish between a indoor or outdoor scene, and sometimes for no reason at all. It also serves as the introduction to the Fiddler, played by violinist Nick Danielson, who is present throughout the show along with his apparent apprentice, a little boy, whose presence baffled me until the very last notes when his purpose was revealed.

The most elaborate staging comes later though during Tevye’s Dream sequence. In order to convince his wife, Golda, Tevye concocts a surreal dream as to why his daughter, Tzeitel, should not marry the well off butcher, but the poor tailor instead. It involves Grandma’s resurrection from the dead and breaking out from her grave, the children hanging from the rafters like puppets, and the butcher’s dearly departed wife swinging from the ceiling vowing revenge if Tzeitel marries the butcher.

The one reason I have always enjoyed this musical is that it is a musical of old, complete with different songs for each scene. Today’s modern musical contains the same musical themes repeated over and over. With the exception of a few moments, all of the music in Fiddler is different. All the famous songs are performed including Matchmaker, Matchmaker; If I were a Rich Man; and Sunrise, Sunset.

Don’t Bobble the Bottle

The original choreography is used, but just reworked and given a new Broadway flair by Jonathan Butterell. The highlight for me was during Tzeitel wedding reception where a half dozen men dance vigorously with bottles on their heads, with barely a bobble.

Staging, music, and choreography can only take a show so far. It is up to the actors to bring it to life, and this cast just did not do it for me. They are missing the warmth and spontaneity that was present in other productions. Alfred Molina stars as Tevye. He recently made waves in the Academy Award nominated film Frida and in the hugely popular Broadway play, Art.

Alfred Molina as Tevye

It seems to me that Molina is afraid to give this role the extra push to put him over the top. He is missing the charisma that is the cornerstone of Tevye’s personality. His singing voice is good, but it is as if he is afraid that he might embarrasses himself if he shakes his belly too much. I don’t think Tevye’s three oldest daughters, played by Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly, and Tricia Paoluccio, can sing all that well with the exception of Kelly whose voice makes for sweet singing. The gem of the show comes in John Cariani as Motel, the poor tailor. He is charming and endearing even with all his nervous twitches and anxious silences. Cariani is hilarious and steals every scene he is in and is the only performer who actually brought back those feelings I remember from watching Fiddler as a kid.

Elaborate staging and the performance of Cariani cannot make up for the lack of charm and charisma missing from this production. 

Fiddler On The Roof is currenty playing at the Minskoff Theatre, NY

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