Theater Review: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Yiddish at Stage 42

The off-Broadway cast of "Fiddler on the Roof" in Yiddish

By Jonathan Spira on 25 February 2019
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Bring Kleenex!

The much heralded National Yiddish Theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish opened Thursday at Stage 42, an off-Broadway theater originally known as the Little Shubert.

“A Fidler Afn Dakh,” written by Shraga Friedman in 1966 just two years after “Fiddler” opened in English on the Great White Way, was set to run just six weeks when it opened last July at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene (“Folksbiene” means people’s stage) in lower Manhattan. Critics (including myself) and audiences thought otherwise. I left the theater convinced it would transfer to either Broadway or off-Broadway. Indeed, a Broadway run was rumored but, regardless of whether that was a possibility or not, the show’s producers opted for Stage 42, one of the largest off-Broadway houses complete with a Broadway-size stage.

The off-Broadway production of “Fiddler” brings with it the great authenticity that seeing and hearing Tevye, Golde, Yente, and the other denizens of Anatevke speak Yiddish, the original language of the characters, as well as the same extraordinary moving experience that harkens back to Sholem Aleichem’s original stories (written in the mama loshen, as Yiddish is often referred to).

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The sparse set (it’s incredible how much Beowulf Boritt was able to do with a few tables and chairs) brings a laser like focus onto the individual characters, and Joel Grey’s brilliant direction tugs at the heartstrings. This is one show that repeatedly moved both myself and FBT Cultural Editor and theater co-critic Blaise Buckley to pull out additional Kleenex. Just seeing the word ”תורה” (Torah, pronounced “toyre” in Yiddish) on one of the large panels of brown paper that separates the orchestra from the rest of the stage was sufficient and – despite having seen Yiddish “Fiddler” twice downtown and knowing the story line – the pogrom and subsequent expulsion of the Jewish townspeople of Anatevke left the audience with the feeling that they, too, were being expelled by the 1905 edict of Tsar Nicholas II.

Steven Skybell’s Tevye continues to channel Theodore Bikel (the well-known Austrian-American actor who played the role more times than any other) and theatergoers get nothing less than a Broadway-quality performance. The same goes for Jennifer Babiak, who is a stoic and dignified Golde, having taken over the role several months into the run at the Folksbiene.

Jackie Hoffman continues to conjure her Molly Picon as an understated but hysterical Yente the Matchmaker and Cameron Johnson as Fyedke is a standout for both his vocal talent and his dance moves.

Click here to continue to Page 2Frighteningly Authentic Jewish and Cossack Folk Dancing

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