May 20, 2004
Tradition Falls Flat on Broadway
It may be a cliché that L.A. theater does not compare to New York's, but even in the case of Broadway's current less-than-rave-reviewed production of "Fiddler on the Roof," it remains true. The show, which has been nominated for five Tony awards, including best revival, has been criticized for what some have called a lack of "Jewishness" and others have simply called a lack of soul. But while it does miss a certain oomph, "Fiddler" is still solidly good, in itself a triumph over recent tours landing in our city, like "Chicago" and "Starlight Express."
As the house lights dim in New York's spacious Minskoff Theatre, we are reintroduced to the little Russian Jewish shtetl of Anatevka, and to Tevye, the loveable town milkman and father of five daughters, who regularly converses with God. Pretty gaslights rise over a stage of bare trees and a dilapidated roof, silhouetted against an electric blue backdrop. Alfred Molina has the large presence of a proper Tevye, though there's something a little tepid about the minimalist set as well as Molina's performance.
Molina, and his fellow cast members hit all the notes well, and meet the demands of Jerome Robbins' original choreography. For the most part, that is enough. It is easy to be charmed by Joseph Stein's book, Sheldon Harnick's lyrics and Jerry Bock's music, and some 40 years later, charm they still do. But there are moments when one is left wanting. Big company pieces are somehow deprived of their grandness. "To Life, L'chaim" lacks life. Bottle dancers still impress in the wedding scene, but the hora feels like going through the motions.
The more intimate moments and songs, in turn, lack the intimacy that a different stage setting might offer. And in the expanse of the stage, with its lovely but sparse set design, there is a certain lack of clutter that might otherwise more aptly hint at the bustle of a poor little town overflowing with mouths to feed. The set design works best in Tevye's nightmare scene, wherein the stage is slanted, thus creating a feeling that the dream might spill over into the audience.
Our guides through this tale, Molina onstage, and director David Leveaux, offstage, would seem to share most of the responsibility for these omissions. There is surely a desire on every director's part to put his or her own stamp on a revival production. But there's something to be said for tradition, and Leveaux might've done well to heed the message of his own show.
As for Molina, his reputation as a fine actor has been well-earned, and it cannot be overstated that in stepping into this role, he stepped into the enormous shoes of Zero Mostel, who originated the role of Tevye on Broadway in 1964, and Topol, who played him in the Academy Award-winning film version, thus imprinting his image of Tevye on the minds of a younger generation. But despite the inclinations one might have to root for this underdog, his failure is not in making the role his own, but in not fully fleshing it out at all.
The crux is not simply a universal tale about the modern world's encroachment on traditional ways and about religious intolerance. At the heart of it, is Jewish heart and soul. At the heart of it is Tevye -- big, gruff, endearing and exuberant. Molina's Tevye doesn't dance or shimmy with abandon. There's a self-consciousness to his movements that rob the character of his essence. In Tevye's being, not just his words, we should see the heart and soul of the story.
Other cast members follow in turn, delivering faceless performances, with one notable exception. John Cariani as Motel the Tailor makes an effort to give his character some real personality, but working too hard leaves him with the opposite effect. The overacted, awkward nebbish routine becomes a caricature that to some might be endearing, but also hints at a stereotype that is as offensive as the notion that only a Jew can properly infuse "Jewishness" into a role.
What's missing, in the end, isn't "Jewishness," but energy. The production benefits largely from its framework of acclaimed book, music, lyrics and choreography. The core talent of the cast keeps them level, as well. Their voices and bodies perform, even if their hearts seem absent. Thus, though shaky, this new "Fiddler on the Roof" keeps its balance.