Theater Review: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene

By Jonathan Spira on 23 July 2018
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Theodore Bikel would have approved.

The powerful new production of “Fiddler on the Roof” that opened recently at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, is an authentic and, at times, extraordinarily moving experience.

Bikel, whose first stage appearance was in Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Milkman” (one of Aleichem’s stories on which the musical was based) and who performed the role of Tevye in “Fiddler” more than any other actor although he wasn’t the first Tevye, was a close family friend and was also a folksinger, Yiddish speaker, and most importantly, a story teller.

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Steven Skybell, who steps into Tevye’s boots in this Folksbiene production, is a storyteller cast from the same mold as Bikel. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that this “Fiddler” is performed entirely in Yiddish, the language that Tevye and his family and neighbors would have presumably spoken in the fictional Russian village of Anatevke.

The Yiddish-language version of “Fiddler” isn’t new. Written by Shraga Friedman for a production in Israel, it dates back to 1966 and was published two years after the hit show’s Broadway debut. More importantly, it harkens back to Sholem Aleichem’s original stories, which were in the mama loshen, as Yiddish is often referred to, and Folksbiene, the world’s oldest continuously operating Yiddish theater, is an ideal platform for this revival.

Don’t be concerned about any language barrier, however: a translation in English (and, for even greater authenticity, in Russian) is helpfully projected as supertitles on two screens to the right and left of the simple stage.

“Tradition” is “traditsye” (although, outside of the song, the word “Torah” is frequently substituted), “If I Were a Rich Man” morphs into “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothshild” (“If I Were a Rothschild”), and the never-quite-settled argument between two townspeople about the sale of a horse (or was it a mule?) becomes a disagreement about whether a he-goat (book) or a she-goat (tsig) was actually at stake.

In contrast to the 2015 “Fiddler” revival by Bartlett Sherr, which hit all the right notes but didn’t necessarily tug at the heartstrings, “Fidler Afn Dakh,” directed by Joel Grey, tugs repeatedly at them and doesn’t let go.

Skybell’s Tevye, in his regular conversations with God and seemingly daily conflicts with the forces of progress (three of his five daughters are approaching marrying age and are unwillingly to abide by the custom of an arranged marriage), transports the audience to Anatevke with him and engages the audience in every heartache.

Jackie Hoffman is understated but hysterical as Yente the Matchmaker. Mary Illes is a wonderfully stoic Golde, and Jennifer Babiak is frighteningly realistic as Bobe Tsaytl in Tevye’s Dream sequence.  Cameron Johnson as Fyedke is a standout for both his vocal talent and his dance moves.

Make no mistake about it, despite its Lower Manhattan location, this is a Broadway-class production with beautiful staging and choreography by Staś Kmieć and an excellent 12-piece stage orchestra led by Zalmen Mlotek. The sparse yet effective set by Beowulf Boritt amplifies the theatergoer’s focus on the characters and their emotions.

Although the villagers have not become a Rothschild, they fell victim to at least one pogrom, and are forced to leave Anatevke following an edict by Czar Nicholas II. However, “Fidler” closes with both optimism for the future and tenderness, without becoming overly sentimental. (In a departure from the Broadway version, in Friedman’s opus, Tevye’s daughter Tsaytl and her husband, instead of merely saying they are leaving for Poland, state that their destination is Warsaw, perhaps foreshadowing what was to transpire in that city a few decades later.

The show’s authenticity – and I feel I can’t close without being somewhat repetitive – makes this not only the most authentic rendition of the show but places it into the pantheon of must-see theater for all.

As Yente is fond of saying: “Nit azoy? Farshteyt zikh, azoy!” (“Not so? You should understand it’s so!”).

THE DETAILS

Fiddler on the Roof
National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene
36 Battery Place
New York, N.Y. 10280
Runtime: Two hours and 50 minutes
www.nytf.org

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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