When Chaim Topol was forced to leave his North American "farewell tour" of Fiddler on the Roof last month due to illness, the Tony Award winning Broadway actor and playwright, Harvey Fierstein, was once again asked to pull on Reb Tevye's boots in order to finish off the remaining tour dates, Toronto being Fierstein's first performance.
I saw Fierstein in a previous incarnation of the role in the successful Broadway revival that opened in 2004 and ran for 781 performances. Fierstein had replaced Alfred Molina as Tevye and Rosie O'Donnell was cast opposite him as Goldie (replacing Andrea Martin). I saw the show a few nights before it closed in early January 2008, and to say that it looked tired is an understatement. The orchestra members (which for some unknown and ill-advised reason were placed on the stage) were so bored that one player was observed leaning close to his music stand in order to grab the light so that he could pursue a cross-word puzzle in between musical numbers.
But something metaphysical happened when Fierstein took the stage. Everything lightened and came alive. Suddenly, there was the sense that a great play was being performed and that seriousness of purpose was once again in charge. There have been many fine actors in the role of Tevye over the years including Topol (who has done the role on Broadway, in London and on film), Theodore Bickel, Herschel Bernardi, to name a few - but to my mind it is Mr. Fierstein who comes closest to realizing the role as it was first created and defined by the great Zero Mostel.
Some reviewers have suggested that gravelly vocal chords and a limited singing range impedes Fierstein as Tevye. I suggest that they may be listening but not hearing. Every breath, every note, every gravel voiced sigh and moan comes deep from within, where the truth lives, and Fierstein brings that understanding and depth to every performance. He is more than worthily aided in this nightly quest by Susan Cella, who plays Goldie, and Rena Strober, Jamie Davis and Deborah Grausman who play Tevye's three oldest daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava respectively.
When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964 it was only 20 years distant from the first discoveries of German concentration camps in Majdanek, Belzek, Sobibor and Treblinka. A horror so profound that the philosopher Theodor Adorno famously proclaimed "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Nonetheless, the Sholem Aleichem short stories set in the Tsar's Russia of 1905, detailing the struggle of a poor Jewish milkman in a dialog with God against the background of the pogroms were not without a huge and emotionally abiding resonance for their time.
This current touring production is not an extension of the earlier Broadway revival. It is a fully reconceived and freshened version of the show that has added scenic elements (a lovely white birch motif by Steve Gilliam reminiscent of the first frames in Dr. Zhivago) and an invigorating choreography (by Sammy Dallas Bayes who also directed the show) which is respectful of Jerome Robbins' original while adding in some vibrant innovations, including a first act dream sequence that is the most creative I've ever seen.
If Fiddler on the Roof lands in your city sometime over
the next few months, don't hesitate to rush right out and see it. And take
someone along who has never seen the show before - that's what tradition is all
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