What is the best way to teach the daily struggles of family life and change to a modern generation: physical comedy or unadulterated sincerity? Harvey Fierstein’s Tevye does both. On the other hand … he has some competition what with the starlet vocals of his three daughters in-production. On the other hand … he’s Harvey Fierstein, part of the reason this run of Fiddler on the Roof at the National Theatre has been so successful.
Fierstein first starred as Tevye during the critically acclaimed Broadway revival, having previously won four Tony Awards, including Best Play and Best Actor in a Play for Torch Song Trilogy, with his most recent win in 2003 for Best Actor in a Musical for Hairspray. Now, he’s filling seats for sold-out crowds of all-ages at the National Theatre, reprising the role as Tevye and doing justice to the name while still maintaining his sense of self on stage.
Fiddler on the Roof is a show I have grown up with since I first saw my classmates perform the it live from my day school’s community room stage. I went on to learn about the show in many capacities ranging from my synagogue after-hours, to tape recordings from my father‘s high school portrayal of Perchik, and even several viewings of the feature film version from my Bubbe’s couch. Call me a traditionalist, but based on those past experiences I wasn’t so sure Fierstein’s semi-comical interpretation of Tevye would end up garnering my appreciation by the curtain call.
What worked for myself and the audience was Fierstein’s ability to transition between physical comedy and unadulterated sincerity while wearing the same hat. The scratches in his voice were rough enough during any spoken monologue to drive an ear up a wall but his rendition of “If I Were A Rich Man” was strong, giving Tevye that likeable quality theater go-ers cling to from their velvet seats. The scratches became but a mere side note of a character trait after that.
The families and individuals portrayed on stage during Fiddler on the Roof are in no way out of touch or old news when compared to modern day. Issues plaguing the lives of each resident in Tevye’s Anatekva have real problems, both familial and communal, that need a little fixing. A threat of constant change without having a voice in the actual act of change is something any political activist, teenager, young adult, struggling-worker, or parent can understand. Fierstein’s performance wraps these struggles together into a tightly-bound package.
There’s a famous line in Fiddler, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? … Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as… as a fiddler on the roof!” At first, I thought this line always meant to never tamper with tradition. I thought tradition was set in stone, never to be touched. Fierstein and his fellow cast members proved to me that this interpretation was not incorrect but required an amendment. Tradition, when alive and well, serves as a guide. The changes made to any tradition are welcomed, as long as the repercussions felt by that change are accounted for by those seeking it.
Here are a few examples: Motel’s love for Tzietel, Perchik’s love for Hodel, Fiyedka’s love for Chava, and Tevye’s love for all six of his girls … including Golde. Tevye found himself changing everything he once knew (a world of arranged marriages for all) for his daughters (allowing them to marry for love). Heart-wrenching at times, the role of a parent is never easy. But neither is the child’s.
The act of growing up is a painful struggle. Fiddler‘s younger-generation provides a unique look at this. Let’s start with Tevye’s girls — Kaitlin Stilwell (Tzeitel), Jamie Davis (Hodel), and Deborah Grausman (Chava) all have some pipes on them. Their rendition of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” had the audience’s heads bobbing in a collective fashion as their bodies swayed in their seats. All three of them portrayed their roles in a light-hearted way, making their transition from naive children to informed young women realistic and believable.
Fiddler‘s cast of men, although convincing actors, lacked a distinct vocal flair. While Zal Owen’s Motel maintained an adorable balance between a young man in love craving a father’s approval and a slightly nerdy, but still hard-working suitable husband, his rendition of “Miracle of Miracles” felt flat and moved at a glacial pace. The choreography for the song was weak and left no reason for me to applaud at the end. However, Owen’s Motel was completely genuine, so I felt for the guy and applauded anyway.
The same goes for Colby Foytik’s Perchik. “Now I Have Everything,” Perchik’s sole vocal opportunity besides chorus pieces, was thin. Jamie Davis’ Hodel helped bring the piece some life though, making it an overall enjoyable experience.
One scene stands out as the most memorable — Fierstein’s rendition of “Chavala” brought me to tears. Tevye’s heart was broken moments earlier by his middle daughter’s marriage to a man outside the Jewish faith. A black stage with Fierstein’s face lit by a gentle spotlight as he sang, “Little Bird, Little Chavala / I don’t understand whats happening today / Everything is all a blur / Gentle and kind and affectionate / The sweet little bird you were / Chavala, Chavala,” was the exact selling point I had been searching for the entire night. This was the pièce de résistance.
The quivering vocals and tearful adaptation could have made any father weep over their love for their daughter. It was in that moment that I discovered the importance of Fiddler on the Roof as cultural icon. It is more than a tale of Jewish days gone by, it is a life lesson set to music that preaches the importance of family for generations past and generations to come.
The sun set’s on this fine performance of Fiddler on the Roof May 2. You would be a fool to not purchase tickets while you still can. Why? Because there’s nothing more important than family and Fiddler is the perfect reminder of that.
Ticket are still available starting at $51.50 at the National Theatre Box Office, through Telecharge at www.telecharge.com, or by calling (800) 447-7400. For groups of 15 or more, call (866) 276-2947.