Fiddler in the Ground: “Fiddler on the Roof” by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein

I’m going to be hard on the Playhouse Theater production of Harnick, Stein, and Bock’s miraculous 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof — and I’ve got to be. My classmate, who loved the show seemingly unequivocally, spoke to me on the train home from the theater of her assessments of other bowlers as a competitive bowler herself: “Sure, I could say ‘Your technique was wrong here,’ or ‘You did that wrong there,’ but I’ve got to remind myself that to someone else, if they get a strike, they’ve done a really good job. I’ve just got to sort of wipe my mind of what I know so that I can see the way they’re seen by everyone else and appreciate them for what they’re doing.” I said nothing in the moment, not wanting to once again emerge as the comic book supervillain amidst post-show joy. But the line popped into my head and rankled there the rest of the night: “Ignorance does not a good bowler make.”

 

I’m going to be hard on this production of Fiddler on the Roof because its source material is already nearly perfect. The book by Joseph Stein is hilarious, packed to the brim with laugh after laugh, and Harnick and Bock’s music is fun, sweet, moving, and everything in between, landing it on the playlists of millions of people even in 2019. If you’re going to do something as classic as this — choosing this for the season over a new show — you damn well better do it well. Each and everything that is changed must be changed with purpose; each and everything that is unchanged must be executed with the passion it originally retained. If these criteria are not satisfied, the evening becomes an exercise in either nostalgia or laziness, and often both. If these criteria are not satisfied, it is an insult to every living, breathing playwright and composer of today, who, while maybe not offering at first a show as technically refined as Fiddler, would certainly give you a show with heart and with excitement.

 

Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theater failed to meet either of these criteria — painfully so. There are multiple reasons for this being the case, but above all, as the show does, they revolve around Tevye. Andy Nyman is bad: he has neither the singing chops of a man cast for his vocal abilities, the acting chops of a man cast for his ability to evoke emotion, nor the charisma of a man cast for the indelible effect he might have on an audience. He has nothing, really — nothing except youth. He is 53 in real life, but onstage, behind old-age makeup and a terribly fake-looking greying beard, he seems like a 30-year-old playing in Daddy’s closet. He lands hardly any of his comedic lines in act one, and though more successful in act two, he still has a laughably low batting average. The central conceit of the show — the weathering away of the age-old patriarchy — is lost on him intrinsically, and lines such as “Sunrise, Sunset’”s “When did they grow to be so tall?” are baffling to an audience who sees a 30-year-old lamenting the ageing of his 20-year-old offspring. His accent is also all over the place, flailing wildly from flat American to Yiddish to British to a muddy cocktail of the three. He cares not, it would seem, about any other actor on the stage, confined to a bubble for the duration of the show; in this bubble, he also nudge-nudges the comedy more than any other cast member, striking a far different tone in whichever corner of the stage he might find himself. Now, normally in a great production, one actor cannot spoil the other apples, no matter how rotten they are. However, the direction of this production constantly has us and the whole of Anatevka focusing on Tevye, rubbing in our faces again and again just how pathetic he is in a role given such gravitas by Tevyes like Zero Mostel and Topol. Certainly, it might be a choice to cast a young man in this role — but it’s a bad one, as the text simply does not support it. David Mamet once said “A director who feels the need to reinterpret a classic work doesn’t understand the work.” He’s right: director Trevor Nunn, as Dr. Essin posited after the show, must’ve been asleep at the wheel.

 

There are other causes of this production’s mediocrity, however. To start with the obvious, the Fiddler scratches and squeaks a few of his notes in the most iconic fiddle tune of American musical theatre, the introduction to “Tradition.” On top of this stunning breach in skill, he is dressed like a literal clown — a bright green jacket, a yellow shirt, and disgustingly purple trousers — for no discernible reason. There is the environmental staging of the show, which, for someone like me seated in the upper circle of the Playhouse Theater, prohibits 40% of the stage from being seen at all times. (Let’s keep the environmental theatre to environments where everyone can be included, huh?) There’s confusion in the set about what constitutes “inside” and what “outside,” with character variously referring to the immobile doors as pathways to both. There’s general sloppiness when it comes to props, with one loaf of bread falling from the cupboard shelves and Tevye dropping a pillow before his supposed-to-be-heart-wrenching final conversation with Hodel. There’s no attempt at accent consistency among any of the daughters, who sound better situated in The Sound of Music than a shtetl in Anatevka. There’s the utterly bizarre reinterpretation of one of musical theatre’s greatest songs, “If I Were a Rich Man,” through attempting to explain the “yidididididibums” by having Tevye say them as verbalizations amid stretching his limbs (probably the worst choice of the whole production). There’s the fact that the young Russian soldier cracks on his high note in “L’Chaim”, and that the Constable is acted with all of the cartoonishness of a man who missed the memo that what makes the Holocaust and Jewish persecution so scary is that it was (and is) “good” guys who carry out its orders. There’s the laughable — in a terrible way — staging of Fruma Sara in “Tevye’s Dream”, which features Fruma-Sarah levitating in a two-to-four foot height off the ground and screaming as obnoxiously as a wild banshee while limited to this one spot on the stage. And finally, there’s the delivery of one of the most bone-chilling lines in musical theatre — Tevye’s final reflection, “Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats” — as if it were the Yuk-Yuk Hour at the Grand Ole Opry.

 

There are a few things, to be sure.

 

But, I’d be remiss if I did not commend a few people for their hard work in this show. Golde is great, understated in her acting and doing a phenomenal job of showcasing the quiet struggle undertaken by all women of this time against the tyranny of the patriarchy and the horrors of their husbands’ horrendous acting abilities. Perchik and Hodel sing terrifically, with Perchik emerging as a solid actor in his highlight number, as well. Yente (God bless Yente!) lands more of her lines than any other actor. And the pit orchestra kills it.

 

That’s about it for positives.

 

I wondered on the train ride home whether the problem might expose itself even in the marketing campaign for this production, which boldly proclaims, “#WelcometoAnatevka.” This, to me, announces a fundamental misunderstanding of this show, and I wonder further whether non-Jew Trevor Nunn really grasped the breadth and depth of this show’s exploration into the Jewish experience as director. Each change just baffled me as an audience member, and each keep — mainly the preservation of tired choreography and basic circle-around-Tevye blocking — acted upon me similarly. It saddens me to stay seated during the curtain call for a 150-minute evening of theatre. But, having seen beauty marred, a diamond smashed, with neither rhyme nor reason as justification, I simply had no other recourse.

 
For the love of Hashem, stay away from this production of Fiddler on the Roof.