By William Wolf


It was a joyous occasion last night (June 9, 2014) at The Town Hall with a triple reason for an entertaining star-studded celebration gala. Under the title “Raising the Roof,” the Yiddish National Theatre-- Folksbiene was marking its 100th season and also honoring the internationally popular theatrical classic “Fiddler on the Roof” that opened on Broadway 50 years ago. In addition, the show’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick is celebrating his 90th birthday year and on the occasion the Folksbiene gave him a life achievement award, which he accepted from special guest star Chita Rivera.

The event was co-conceived and co-directed by Gary John La Rosa and Erik Liberman, both of whom appeared in past “Fiddler on the Roof” productions. They are to be congratulated for staging a show that could have been an unwieldy mélange, but instead turned out to be a well-run mix of show numbers from “Fiddler” and appropriate speeches, all coming within a two-hour intermission-less production that hit emotional highlights before a packed house of enthusiastic admirers.

In accepting his award, Harnick paid tribute to the show’s other creators, the late Joseph Stein, who wrote the book, Jerry Bock, who wrote the music and Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the original show. In a special boon for the audience, Harnick teamed with Broadway star Andrea Martin to sing the beautiful, emotion-charged song “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler,” in which Tevye poses the question to his wife Golde. Both were in excellent voice.

A highlight was the appearance of Topol, who was in the film version directed by Norman Jewison and in productions both in Israel and in the the United States. Without musical accompaniment, he impressively sang “If I Were a Rich Man” with the passion and spirit the song requires.

You might call the evening a “Fiddler” alumni association gathering. The parade of musical numbers from the show began with three alumna who have played the daughters delightfully singing “Matchmaker”—Deborah Grausman, Donalyn Petrucci Shreve and Lori Ada Jaroslow. They then were joined by others who had also played those parts.

Other songs from “Fiddler” during the program were “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Tradition.” Ultimately, in a rousing finale, the stage was filled with a huge contingent who at one point or another in the show’s illustrious history had been in “Fiddler.” Given the musical’s international presentations, the stage would not have been spacious enough to hold all the actors who had performed during the half century since the Broadway debut in 1964. On this occasion, a children’s choir joined in the finale, representing a new generation.

One of the best moments of the evening was a comic routine from the show, with Mike Burstyn as Tevye and the venerable Fyvush Finkel as Lazer Wolf, the butcher, in hilarious double entendre dialogue. Tevye thinks Lazer wants to buy a cow while Lazer is really asking to marry Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel.

Among the large number of other performers participating during the evening were the noted vilonist Joshua Bell and actresses Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Hoffman, Liz Larsen, Joanna Merlin, Neva Small and Karen Ziemba. “Fiddler” veterans Austin Pendleton and Pia Zadora addressed the gathering. The roster of speakers included Ido Aharoni, Israel’s Consul General in New York, Jeffrey Lyons, author and film and theater critic, author Alisa Solomon and theater director Jerry Zaks.

Bel Kaufman, the 103-year-old granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, upon whose stories “Fiddler” was based, sent greetings. Hal Prince, who produced the original Broadway “Fiddler” spoke via a film clip, and there was a clip of the late Zero Mostel, the original Tevye. Film director Jewison was due to speak, but it was announced that plane delays prevented him from arriving in time.

Zalmen Mlotek was artistic director and conductor/pianist for the show’s band that effectively accompanied the performers.

Yet another revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” is planned for next year. In 1915 the Folksbiene will celebrate its 100th birthday with another gala. I have seen many Folksbiene productions and salute its work toward keeping Yiddish theater and culture alive, which also aids in the preservation of the Yiddish language itself. Reviewed June 10, 2014.


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