The Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof” by the National Yiddish Folksbiene was such a success in the company’s downtown staging that the production has now opened in midtown Manhattan. It is a wonder to behold.
There is irony in the translation into Yiddish of Sheldon Harnick’s moving and clever lyrics and Joseph Stein’s book set to the music of Jerry Bock. After all, the work, one of the greatest of American musicals, is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, who wrote in Yiddish. Now it is as if “Fiddler” is being played in the language in which it was meant to be, and it seems thoroughly natural in this appealing staging directed with sensitivity, humor, pathos and dignity by distinguished actor Joel Grey.
The Yiddish translation is by Shraga Friedman, who died in 1970 at the age of 46. There had to be lyric adjustments in spots in order for the translations to match the score. The iconic song “If I Were a Rich Man” now begins, for example, with the Yiddish version line “If I were a Rothshild,” needed that way to blend with the music. But in a follow-up line, “If I Were a Rich Man” translates into Yiddish exactly with the musical match at that point. The show also contains new musical staging and choreography by Stas Kmiec, and the new set design, done with simplicity, is by Beowulf Boritt.
Steven Skybell is a great Tevye. He makes the character come realistically alive, and while he is able to use his voice, body and dialogue to reach for the humor in the character, he doesn’t resort to shtick. There is naturalness in his performance, as there is in the entire show, save, for example, in appropriately wild production numbers, such as the faked dream sequence in which Tevye resorts to his wiles to convince his wife, Golda, to sanction the marriage between their daughter Tsaytl and Motl the tailor.
There is also naturalness in Jennifer Babiak’s portrayal of Golda, and the same can be said for Jackie Hoffman in the role of Yente, the matchmaker. I have seen Hoffman in other circumstances enjoyably cutting up with broad comedy, which she could easily do here, but her Yente is funny in a very controlled manner.
The large cast does an excellent job all around, including Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynn Mason and Rosie Jo Neddy as the three lead daughters; Ben Liebert as Motl the tailor; Drew Seigla as Pertshik, and Bruce Sabath as Leyzer Volf as well as those in other parts and in the ensemble.
Lauren Jeanne Thomas as Der Fidler is used often throughout, as she follows the action while playing her violin. The dancing is creative and exuberant, and the singing is tops. The “Do you Love Me?” number between Tevye and Golda is absolutely lovely. In the show’s incisively performed opening song, “Tradition,” one gets the full cleverness of the manner in which that number lays out so much of what the culture in Anatevka is about.
One doesn’t have to know Yiddish to see this version. There are supertitles projected on each side of the stage in English and Russian. As for the use of Yiddish by performers who don’t speak it, they have mastered the art of learning the lines phonetically.
There is something current about watching this “Fiddler on the Roof” at present. The anti-Semitism of the Russians who force the Jews of Anatevka to vacate their homes and leave in three days in order to survive reminds one not only of current acts of anti-Semitism in the United States and such countries as England and France. But it speaks to the plight of immigrants everywhere who must flee their homes for a variety of reasons and of those who stir up hatred against them. At Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 2, 2019.