Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Performed to packed audiences since its opening on July 4, The Folksbiene’s Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof” production has extended its run to November 18. Even with these additional performances, tickets are at a premium. There is also talk circulating that the show may be moving to Broadway where it has been performed several times before, but always in English.

The baby boomers who comprised most of the packed audience at the August 22 performance have most likely seen the play multiple times, in the theater or on the screen. However, based upon the overwhelmingly enthusiastic applause at the conclusion of the show, it appeared that this production had something special to add to the classic story: “heart.” From the opening number to the final scene, the actors put on a “hartsig” performance that penetrated the hearts of the audience.

With a mere six crinkly sheets of pale fabric hanging from ceiling to floor as backdrop, the show was energetic, engaging and highly expressive. The inclusion of one word—Torah—in Hebrew, on the middle hanging added to the overriding message of the play—tradition. At one point in the play when the tiny village of Anatevka was attacked by Cossacks in a pogrom and the curtain bearing the word Torah was torn in half, the message was clearly understood. But in the very next scene, the torn fabric had been repaired with irregular black stitches, but nonetheless repaired—again, easy for all to understand. At the end of the production, when the edict of expulsion was carried out somberly by the villagers clutching their meager belongings, Tevye proudly carried the Torah scroll aloft to his new home in America. Again, the message was clear.

The musical numbers with which all are familiar were played and sung with depth of feeling and emotion. The dialogue, which again is familiar to many, was conveyed in a rich, idiomatic Yiddish which oftentimes went beyond the literal English and Russian translations provided on the hangings. Familiar Yiddish sayings from our parents’ or grandparents’ homes were interjected into the dialogue which added humor and authenticity to the speeches.

Most of all, the genuine characterizations made the production a winner. Ironically, of the 2,500 submissions and 700 actors who auditioned for the 26 parts, the majority were not at all familiar with the Yiddish language as they are not Jewish. But under the tutelage of Teaneck’s Zalman Mlotek, who serves as the artistic director and conductor of the orchestra, together with director Joel Grey, veteran star of Broadway, working with a multi-talented team including specialists in Yiddish language articulation, the actors came across as believable and authentic, almost as if they had spent their formative years in a shtetl.

Steven Skybell as Tevye was immediately lovable. He combined an innocence with a forced practicality. When he was beset with a major decision, he came to God with a spreadsheet of “on the one hand” versus “on the other hand.” His decisions were always full of compassion and, yes, heart. Even his last whispered blessing to his daughter who had abandoned the faith was compassionate and sincere. His often incorrect quotations from the Torah as well as his “created Rashi commentaries” were charming and all for a good purpose. When he asked Golde if she “loves” him, it was obvious that his love for her was genuine.

The characterization of Yente was incomparable. Known for her stand-up comedy routines, Jackie Hoffman was perfect in the role. When she first came onto the stage, you couldn’t help thinking that you knew her from somewhere, as she was so familiar in looks, speech and gesture. Her motives were clear—from her exaggerations, to her “kvetching,” to her sampling of the Shabbat food. The audience’s hearts went out to her, as she struggled for survival through creative manipulations.

The choreography was captivating, full of life and style. The special effects, despite the paucity of scenery, were very creative as in the scene when Frume-Sora came back in a nightmare to warn against the shidduch with her husband, the butcher Motl Kamzoyl. Again, a mere sheet of fabric created this nightmarish scenario.

The multiple curtain calls and effusive comments of the audience as they were exiting the theater were testimonials to the production’s excellence. And the location of the theater, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, within sight of the iconic Statue of Liberty, only added to the experience.

The Folksbiene Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof is playing at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, NY 10280. For tickets visit NYTF.org.

By Pearl Markovitz