Fiddle Me This

30. January, 2010 Theater 2 comments

Eleventh show of 2010: Fiddler on the Roof, SHN, January 27.

Harvey Fierstein and company. Photo by Carol Rosegg

The last time I saw Fiddler on the Roof was more than 20 years ago, when I was in high school and went to see another high school’s production, featuring at least a couple of actors whom I’m still seeing in shows around the Bay Area. Lord knows it’s been done since then here, there and everywhere, but like most shows you see in high school productions, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek it out as an adult.

In retrospect, that seems like a shame, because it really is a fantastic musical. Returning to the show after many years, it’s delightful to rediscover just how many marvelous songs are in it, and how funny it is, not to mention the classic bits of recreated Jerome Robbins choreography from the original production: the Russian dances, whirling Hasids and wedding dancers with wine bottles on their heads. Not for nothing did it hold the record for longest-running musical on Broadway for more than a decade, although admittedly some of the record-breakers like Cats that followed it don’t say wonders for that distinction as a surefire measure of quality.

With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, the Tony-winning 1964 musical about Jewish shtetl life in Russia in the first years of the 20th century is based on various stories of Sholem Aleichem, especially Tevye and His Daughters. Poor and good-natured milkman Tevye and his stern wife, five unmarried daughters and many neighbors in the fictional village Anatevka somewhere in the Pale of Settlement, the limited region of Russia in which Jews were allowed to live, struggle to come to terms with newfangled ideas that threaten the old ways, and also with the goyishe Russians who want to drive them out.

Now SHN brings the show back to San Francisco for a four-week run at the Golden Gate Theatre– with Harvey Fierstein, of all people, as the super-traditional Tevye. Directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes, this production started a year ago as a farewell Fiddler tour for Chaim Topol, who starred in the 1967 West End production, 1971 movie and many revivals thereafter, but actor and playwright Fierstein stepped in when Topol suffered a shoulder injury in November. Fierstein had previously played Tevye in the 2004 Broadway revival, taking over for Alfred Molina.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Fierstein’s singing voice isn’t bad so much as he just doesn’t have one. Although he won a Tony Award as the mother in Hairspray, his distinctively gravelly cigarette rasp is an odd fit for a classic musical that requires him to carry so many famous songs because what he does isn’t singing: it’s croaking in rhythm. When he belts out “Tradition” he sounds like one of The Dark Crystal‘s Skeksis. It’s a harsh sound, not least because of sympathetic pangs that surely he must need to cough speaking like that, let alone singing. On the other hand, he’s had that same voice for a very long time, and knows how to handle it. When he lowers it for comic emphasis, it’s priceless.

Harvey Fierstein as Tevye. Photo by Carol Rosegg

The songs notwithstanding, Fierstein is a terrific Tevye. His sense of comic timing is superb, and the milkman’s many priceless lines are funnier for his sharp delivery. Of course there’s no substitute for the late Zero Mostel, who created the role. But on the other hand Fierstein handles the humor beautifully, whether he’s misquoting the Torah as illustrative folk sayings, impatiently coddling the shy tailor Motel  (Erik Liberman) to try to get him to spit out whatever he has to say, approaching wife Golde (Susan Cella) with a mixture of fondness and trepidation, or deliberating over the increasingly uncomfortable compromises his amorous daughters force him to make with the husbands they choose. He sticks out his tongue too much for comic effect, but he’s amusing and surprisingly endearing in the role.

It’s a solid cast all around, with strong singing (aside from the obvious exception), satisfying dance numbers, and amusing portrayals from the busybody matchmaker to the revolutionary tutor to the dotty rabbi. Steve Gilliam’s set of various cottages isn’t much to look at, but it moves around every which way to capture more locations than you’d think the little village of Anatevka would contain. Tony Ray Hicks’ costumes are appropriately simple, although there are a few surprisingly bad fake beards in the ensemble.

On the other hand, it’s a minor point, but I have to say I get a little tired of the fiddler himself.  He’s the central image of the title and all, borrowed from a Marc Chagall painting, but the way he comes nosing around silently like a mime Ghost of Judaism Past whenever tradition is compromised gets old mighty quick. As the good book says, if a guy was always hanging around pointing his fiddle at you whenever you had to make a hard decision, you might want to belt him one.

Fiddler on the Roof plays through February 11 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco.

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  1. 2 / 5 / 2010 11:45 am

    If it wasn’t for his voice, I would have completely loved Harvey Fierstein as Tevye. I thought he had great timing and a great sense of the character. But the voice kind of killed it a bit for me. Fortunately his charm was enough to make up for it.

    The sets seemed a bit cheap, more like a high-end high school or mid-level college production than a touring Broadway show. Kind of odd, that.


    • Sam Hurwitt

      2 / 5 / 2010 12:11 pm

      Yeah, I agree about the sets. They moved around way too much for me to actually think they were cheap, but they were pretty hokey looking.





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