Bartlett Sher’s shows tend to announce themselves with a visual bang, an effect that delights the eye and lassoes us into the story: The levitating orchestra floating away to reveal the sun-splashed setting of South Pacific; the ship that all but docks in our laps at the beginning of The King And I. For Fiddler On The Roof, which opened tonight at the Broadway Theatre, Sher has something quieter, if no less dramatic, in mind.
Instead of Tevye welcoming us to the tiny little town of Anatevka, where life without tradition would be as shaky as a you-know-who, we have a bearded, capless man in a bright red parka, reading from a book the opening words from the stories of Sholom Aleichem, Tevye’s creator, to the wandering Fiddler standing down stage right. This is the place, these are the people.
Not a word of the Joseph Stein book has been changed, but the context has been altered from past to present. After a moment Danny Burstein — the wonderful actor around whom this unsteady revival has been built — doffs the coat to reveal his poor milkman’s garments over the traditional tsitsit of his prayer shawl and begins his slightly pushy, slightly shy colloquies. With God. With his fellow Anatevkins. With his bossy wife Golde. And of course with us. No less than Doc Brown’s DeLorean in Back To The Future, that parka has yanked us to a time that seems, shockingly, at once distant and as immediate as today’s news.
There’s no mistaking Sher’s intent: Red as a gash, it’s meant to startle us, perhaps even wound us, and promise a revival determined to challenge our expectations. Instead, however, that’s pretty much the last challenge we’ll get until the closing image nearly three hours later. In between is a well-meaning but only intermittently inspired production of a show that’s been revived for Broadway five times since the original closed in 1972 after an eight-year run. Michael Yeargan’s settings, in which the village buildings are frequently suspended between stage and sky, have neither the whimsy of Boris Aronson’s originals nor the realism of homes to lives eked out in deprivation and hardship.
Similarly, this production introduces new choreography by Hofesh Shechter whose priority seems to be to eliminate all traces of Jerome Robbins’ original dances. But Shechter has replaced Robbins’ evocative physical lyricism with caricature: again and again we see men dancing, their arms raised, bent at the elbow, heads jerking left and right. The show’s most surreal scene, when Tevye tells Golde of his “dream” about being visited by spirits, is rendered as a cartoonish parade, a Tim Burton homage that lacks Yiddishkeit.
Centrally, however, it’s the staging that struck me as slightly distancing. This is a show whose audience for the most part knows every line — not only to the songs by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock from “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” and “Sabbath Prayer” to “Sunrise, Sunset” and the rest — but of the dialogue as well. Too often I had the impression of lines being recited rather than felt, and 0f lyrics being presented, rather than sung. This may have been in part due to the amplification, which I found diffuse and overbearing; only the choral numbers had any magic. But the company struck me as hellbent on selling a Broadway show that needs no salesmanship.
Burstein is the key examplar of this. A treasure, he was terrific in Sher’s ravishing productions of South Pacific and Golden Boy for Lincoln Center Theatre and a heartbreaking Herr Schultz in Sam Mendes’ production of Cabaret for the Roundabout Theatre Company. But his Tevye is too nebbishy, too ingratiating to charm us into becoming his allies as he struggled to deal with the cruel forces of change from the outside world and within his own family. He’s too nice. The equally wonderful Jessica Hecht’s Golde is at the other extreme, an embittered scold who doesn’t even seem to soften in “Sunrise, Sunset.” That’s a statement, alright — but not a very endearing one.
These are fine actors, and they lead a fine company (although Ben Rappaport is wooden and off-key as the student “radical” Perchik). Catherine Zuber’s costumes are perfectly evocative of the period and locale, and Donald Holder’s lighting, at times golden and at other times aptly harsh, does some of the heavy lifting in creating the proper atmosphere. An audience comes to Fiddler wanting to love it, and in making a blunt connection between the deported Jews of Anatevka and today’s global tragedy of exile and dislocation, Sher does himself and this indestructible show a disservice. We’re smarter than that.