National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish

Fiddler in The Roof is just as entertaining, illuminating, and relevant as it was in 1964 when The New York Times’ Howard Taubman praised its groundbreaking Broadway debut. Music, lyrics, and book are a masterclass. Each production has its assets and disappointments, but the writing and its message never flag. A man, family, village, and people are forced into changing times by opposite poles of a new generation of civil equality and violent, historically rooted bigotry. With fleeing persecution, and anti-Semitism respectively on the rise, the piece speaks to all generations.

One would think most musical fans had seen some iteration of the show, if not several. I was extremely surprised to discover my companion had not. Judging by audience laughter, she wasn’t alone.

Raquel Nobile, Rosie Jo Neddy, Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Samantha Hahn

English and Russian super titles for this estimable, Yiddish language interpretation keep one abreast, but familiarity often makes them unnecessary. Numbers like “Traditsye = Tradition,” “Shabes Brokhe = Sabbath Prayer,” and “Tog-ayn, Tog-oys = Sunrise, Sunset,” performed in what would have been the characters’ original language, affect as other iterations could not. We feel like voyeurs. (Apparently much of the cast learned songs phonetically. An impressive achievement.)

“Libst Mikh, Sertse = Do You Love Me?” (a tender duet by Teyve and Golde, who never questioned their arranged marriage), though aptly tenuous, usually evokes more emotion, however, as does the wrenching final scene. The Folksbiene version is sometimes less moving than it might be, but worthy and intriguing. It broadens even Jewish horizons and intermittently takes flight.

Steven Skybell and Jennifer Babiak

Cliff Notes for those of you who have let this cultural touchstone slip by till now: Dairyman Teyve (Steve Skybell- grand vocals, sweet humor) and his wife, Golde (Jennifer Babiak –oddly without warmth), have five daughters. The oldest in descending order are Tsaytl (Rachel Zatcoff), Hodl (Stephanie Lynne Mason-grounded and appealing), and Khave (Rosie Jo Neddy). (In an unaccountable mistake, the youngest daughter sounds like Minnie Mouse.)

Matchmaker Yente (the marvelous Jackie Hoffman, here low key), has paired much older butcher Leyzer-Volf (a sympathetic Bruce Sabath) with Tsaytl in order to give her security. Teyve at first agrees, but discovering the girl in love with meek tailor, Motyl Kamzoyl (Ben Liebert- terrific), he gives in to his daughter’s wishes. Convincing Golde is cleverly managed by employing one tradition to avoid another. (Der Kholem = “Tevye’s Dream”) The wedding is both joyous and, to an outsider (us), fascinating.

Steven Skybell and Bruce Sabath

When Hodl falls in love with teacher/activist Pertshik (Drew Seigla- earnest; fine vocals), Teyve is again persuaded to go against deep seated custom and allow their engagement. He always wanted a learned man in the family. This one is a revolutionary. Even in a short time, we observe the young man’s growing influence on his soulmate. Back in the city, Pertshik is captured. Hodl willingly joins her love in Siberia.

It’s 1905. Tsar Nicolas II gives the people of Anatevke three days to evacuate. Pulling all their worldly goods in carts, townspeople leave everything they’ve ever known. Khave’s choice of the (apparently liberal) Russian boy, Fyedke (Cameron Johnson, who gives the role no personality), is unbearable to Teyve. Her father declares the girl dead until a final, whispered reprieve… floats on the wind.

The Company

It’s evident that Director Joel Grey has great feeling for the material. He’s better with intimacy than company scenes, allowing actors time to listen and react.

Musical numbers by Stas Kmiec may be less polished/tight than Jerome Robbins’ Broadway work, but they’re invested with palpable enthusiasm.

Beowulf Borrit’s minimal Set works, especially when literally torn. Observing part of the orchestra through panels is somewhat distracting.

Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward in shades of black, grey/putty and off white seem to reflect a cohesive community. Red hats and sashes spotlight Russians. Period perfect and aesthetically pleasing.

Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Steven Skybell

National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish Directed by Joel Grey
Jerome Robbins- Choreography
Stas Kmiec- Musical Staging & New Choreography
Based on Sholem Alecheim stories by special permission of Arnold Perl
Joseph Stein- Book, Jerry bock-Music, Sheldon Harnick-Lyrics
Shraga Friedman- Yiddish Translation
Through June 30, 2019
Stage 42 on 42nd street (422 W 42nd Street)

About Alix Cohen (582 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.