Off-Broadway Review: National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s “Fiddler on the Roof” at Stage 42

Off-Broadway Review: National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s “Fiddler on the Roof” at Stage 42 (Through Sunday June 30, 2019)
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Yiddish Translation by Shraga Friedman
Directed by Joel Grey
Reviewed by David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

One father longing to be wealthy enough to adequately care for his family – and letting the Creator know he feels overlooked – and three “adult” daughters dodging the craft of the local matchmaker are the grist for an epic challenge to the traditions held dear by the members of Tevye’s Shtetlekh and its “on-the-fence” Der Rov (a confident yet conflicted  Adam B. Shapiro) who is often consulted to determine which traditions remain relevant and which might have become obsolete. Tradition. Culture. Politics. Love. Tevye grapples with these four and more in National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s “Fiddler on the Roof” currently running at Stage 42.

There is considerable Jewish culture captured in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” the iconic musical that has won a respectable reputation in theater history. Since it first opened on Broadway in 1964 to win nine TONY awards, “Fiddler” went on to become the longest running Broadway musical. Since that original production, there have been five Broadway revivals. The collaboration of Joseph Stein (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) resulted in one of the best musicals of the American Theater. However, the Yiddish version, translated by Shraga Friedman over fifty years ago had never been performed in the United States until its recent premiere, produced by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which played last year at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The production is deftly directed by Joel Grey with exciting musical staging and culturally influenced choreography by Stas Kmiec. Oh, what a production it is!

This present revival is as simple as the inhabitants of the fictional Russian shtetl, Anatevka, as powerful as their religious convictions, and shines a bright light on the emotional and poignant struggle of facing a new and sometimes bitter world. Freeing itself from the burden of extravagance, it manifests a certain reality that pulls the audience in, so they become a part of the tightknit community. It is beyond suspension of disbelief, as it creates an actuality that transfers the spectator to another time and place to share in celebration and an onerous plight. Past productions of this work are usually dominated by the musical numbers which have endured a life of their own but in this present incarnation, they are so well integrated that they appear as part of everyday life and the mantra of “tradition.”

Under Joel Grey’s direction, the members of the cast deliver authentic and compelling performances. Steven Skybell brings a solid, reverent and practical Tevye to this production, brimming with conflict, humor and honesty that rings true to the everyman, regardless of race, color or creed. His charming baritone reflects his characters wisdom and vulnerability. These attributes play well off the stern and stoic Golde as portrayed in the rich, layered performance by Jennifer Babiak, who manages to redeem the nearly as impenetrable character with waves of compassion. Jackie Hoffman infuses matchmaker Yente with consistent welcomed humor that purposely disguises a woman who is alone and lonely. Rachel Zatcoff is an assertive Tsaytl devoted to the impoverished tailor Motl Kamzoyl, enacted with a timorous innocence by Ben Liebert. The rebellious Hodl is brought to life with a solid conviction by Stephanie Lynne Mason demonstrating determined energy and a steadfast commitment to an unexpected romance. The curious Khave, is given a thirst for knowledge by the wholesome and fearless Rosie Jo Neddy. She is the most adventuresome daughter, crossing religious and cultural boundaries to elope and marry a Christian, Fyedke, a stalwart and intelligent Cameron Johnson. And the omnipresent Der Fidler (a magical and spritely Lauren Jeanne Thomas) reminds the audience of humanity’s ongoing struggle for meaning in life’s struggle.

At the performance on Saturday March 2, 2019, the role of Yosl/Ensemble (Nick Raynor) was played by dance captain John Giesige.

The entire twenty-nine-member cast is wonderful and works diligently to reach the core of this story in the native Yiddish language which proves to authenticate the time and place. They are supported by a wonderful twelve-piece orchestra conducted by Zalmen Moitek, which fills the space with memorable melodies. This production of “Fiddler on the Roof” is purely a demonstration of the incredible power of theater. Kudos to the entire cast and creative team for collaborating to present a cogent, emotional and entertaining production. Mazel Tov!