‘Tradition’ continues, but this ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ falls flat

By Bob Abelman

Danny Burstein as Tevye PHOTO| Joan Marcus

Danny Burstein as Tevye PHOTO | Joan Marcus

NEW YORK — A new revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sounds crazy, no?

On the one hand, the original Broadway production — which ran for a then-unprecedented 3,242 performances and earned nine Tony Awards — premiered 50 years ago.

Today, nations still turn their backs on their own people and set entire villages adrift. So this beloved musical about the dairyman Tevye, his family and the other Jews who populate and are then exiled from the underfed and overworked Russian shtetl of Anatevka still resonates.

On the other hand, this is the fifth Broadway revival of “Fiddler.” Does the world need another?

Just prior to taking on “Fiddler,” Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher, an up-and-coming freelancer in 1998 when he directed “Richard III” at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival, spearheaded the Broadway revival of “The King and I,” which had been revived three other times since its 1951 premiere. In 2009, he directed the Broadway revival of “South Pacific,” which debuted in 1949.

The guy certainly knows how to make new productions of classic musicals distinctive.

But distinctive does not necessarily mean better, unfortunately the case in the revival of “Fiddler” that opened Dec. 20 at the Broadway Theatre.

The musical is based on stories written in Yiddish, in 1894, by Sholem Aleichem and is so brilliantly constructed that its core elements seem impervious to artistic tinkering by others. Joseph Stein’s clever script captures the essence of Aleichem’s tales and the show boasts a magnificent score by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics).

The joyous freylach rhythms of “To Life” and the melancholic violin solo that is “Fiddler’s” recurring theme are the show’s unyielding creative and cultural cornerstones.

But Sher sacrifices some of the implicit Jewishness in the work in an effort to universalize its story about oppressed families forced from their homelands. He does this by doing away with old-world Eastern European accents, stylistically simplifying production values, and offering a more generic Tevye. It begins the moment the audience enters the theater and encounters its bare stage.

When the show opens, five-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein enters dressed in a contemporary red parka jacket, reading the play’s opening lines from a book of Aleichem’s stories. When he removes the jacket to reveal traditional, autumn-hued shtetlwear and puts on his iconic cap, Burstein becomes Tevye and is joined by the rest of Anatevka’s residents for a rousing performance of “Tradition.”

The show ends with Burstein wearing the same parka as he joins the progression of Tevye’s family, neighbors and friends, who have been forced out of Anatevka. His red jacket is the only splash of color and stands out like a beacon in the show’s final, frozen tableau.

This device is an attempt to dramatically connect our world and time with Tevye’s. But the meaning in a message as overtly theatrical and spoon-fed as this one is less poignant and affecting than one discovered on our own. And it is much harder to care about a symbolic, representative Tevye than, simply, the man.

Fortunately, Burstein is brilliant in all that he does as Tevye — particularly his endearing performance of “If I Were a Rich Man” — even though much of what he does is less interesting than it was in previous incarnations.

But Burstein serves up a Tevye who is human-sized, not the larger-than-life personality Zero Mostel established in the original production or Herschel Bernardi embraced in the 1981 revival. Other Tevyes of greater scope were Israeli actor Topol in the 1990 revival and the only non-Jewish Tevye, Alfred Molina, in the 2004 update. (The New York Times called the last one “Goyim on the Roof.”)

Instead of presenting a blend of shtetl nostalgia and old-world patriarchy, Burstein’s Tevye is an understated Everyman, not the outspoken voice of his village and, more importantly, his people.

Rather than passionately railing against the tidal wave of social and political change, Burstein’s Tevye rarely raises his voice at his disobedient children (the delightful Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, Samantha Massell as Hodel, and Melanie Moore as Chava), their love interests (the very talented Adam Kantor as Motel, Ben Rappaport as Perchik, and Nick Rehberger as Fyedka), a confounding God, or this production’s even more intimidating force of nature: Tevye’s wife, Golda (Jessica Hecht).

So tepid is this Tevye that Golda’s condescension, which was playful and humorous in previous productions, becomes the real thing in this one. If not for their beguiling duet, “Do You Love Me,” the answer would be a resounding no.

Oddly, only Hecht’s Golda speaks with an accent, although she does so with an inexplicably Germanic inflection. The lack of old-world accents takes much of the stuffing out of the derma that is this production, which may well have been the intention.

But it tends to flatten such richly drawn and distinctively Jewish character roles as the matchmaker Yente (Alix Korey), the Rabbi (Jeffrey Schecter), Nachum the Beggar (Mitch Greenberg, who recently appeared in the Cleveland Play House production of “Yentl”) and Mordcha the Innkeeper (Michael C. Bernardi, who is the son of Herschel Bernardi and wears his dad’s Tevye boots in this production).

Tevye is further minimized during the gorgeous “Far From the Home I Love,” when Hodel sings to her father as they await the train that will take her away forever. Halfway through the heart-wrenching and beautifully delivered song, the actress leaves the bench she shares with Tevye and delivers the song at the edge of the stage, shifting the focus from Tevye’s reactions and, with it, the vicarious flood of emotion the audience would have otherwise experienced.

Michael Yeargan’s scenic design, too, scales down. Rather than immersing us in the world of Anatevka, we are offered representative pieces and parts, some layered and levitated as if in a Marc Chagall painting — which also inspired the original production design of “Fiddler.” The pieces are intriguing and effectively lit by Donald Holder but it is hard to care about a symbol. When the floating houses shrink as the show progresses, suggesting a distancing of Anatevkans from their homes, that also distances the audience from this production.

London-based, Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter’s choreography has the opposite effect. Though grounded in the original work of Jerome Robbins, particularly the Judaic foot stomping and arm swaying during “To Life” and the traditional wedding bottle dance, wildly fluid movement replaces much of Robbins’ more classic and formal dance steps. The innovative choreography, coupled with the glorious sound generated by a full orchestra under Ted Sperling’s direction, is absolutely riveting and the true star of this revival.

No creative work by or about Jews has won the hearts of Americans as thoroughly as “Fiddler.” But, as noted in Alisa Solomon’s recent book “Wonder of Wonders,” backers of the original musical worried it would be “too Jewish” for tourists. In response, the depiction of Eastern European Jews took on reassuring stereotypes that, according to the author, “preserved our heritage not so much in amber as in schmaltz.”

In this revival, Sher has eliminated some of the schmaltz. In doing so, he has removed some of the show’s heart as well.  CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Fiddler on the Roof”

WHERE: The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York City

WHEN: Open-ended run

TICKETS & INFO: $89-$227. Call 800-276-2392 or visit boxoffice.broadway.com

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in January 2016.

Lead photo: The villagers of Anatevka. PHOTO | Joan Marcus

Broadway’s delightful ‘Something Rotten’ spoofs all things Shakespeare

By Bob Abelman

NEW YORK CITY — To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is allowing priceless copies of the Bard’s precious First Folio to go on national tour.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, actors John Heminges and Henry Condell gathered his works and published the 900-page folio, which consists of 36 plays, 18 of which — including “Twelfth Night,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Macbeth” — had never before been printed. Fewer than 750 copies were produced and only 233 survive.

Announcement of the tour has already reignited the long-standing debate about whether Shakespeare’s plays were actually penned, at least in part, by playwright Christopher Marlowe, essayist Francis Bacon, dramatist George Peele, adventurer Walter Raleigh or William Stanley, the 6th earl of Derby. The film “Anonymous,” a 2011 political thriller set in the Elizabethan court, made a convincing argument that a cultured aristocrat named Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, did most of the writing.

Broadway’s “Something Rotten!” which opened at the St. James Theatre last April, takes place in South London in 1595. It lays to rest the debate by demonstrating that Shakespeare had nary a creative bone in his body and wrote nothing that was original. Marlowe, Bacon and the others even make a cameo appearance in the opening scene before we ever set eyes on the plagiarizing Shakespeare.

This would be a bold historical statement if the musical was meant to be anything more than a romp about the Renaissance and its theater scene.

It has no such aspirations. “Something Rotten!” is an absolutely shameless spoof of all things Shakespeare and a deceptively smart but equally outrageous parody of Broadway musicals.

This should come as no surprise since it was written by Karey Kirkpatrick, who mostly wrote scripts and songs for Disney Animation, and John O’Farrell, a comic novelist in the U.K. Wayne Kirkpatrick, Karey’s brother, contributed astoundingly hummable music and hilarious lyrics.

And the show is directed/choreographed with witty and reckless abandon by Casey Nicholaw, who won a 2011 Tony Award for his work on the perfectly irreverent and hugely successful “The Book of Mormon.”

“Something Rotten!” revolves around the two 16th-century Bottom brothers, the earnest Nick (typically played by Brian D’Arcy James, but the night I attended, brilliantly handled by Stacey Todd Holt) and the pathologically naive Nigel (a thoroughly endearing John Cariani), who hate Shakespeare as much for his thievery as for his rock-star reputation among adoring theatergoers.

The two underdog playwrights hire a bargain-basement soothsayer named Nostradamus (an absolutely hysterical Brad Oscar) to look into the future so they can claim Shakespeare’s most popular play as their own. Nostradamus picks up pieces and parts of “Hamlet” but also discovers an art form that will take the world by storm — the musical — in which singing and dancing replace dialogue and overpriced drinks can be purchased in a lobby. His vision provides random insights into showgirls, chorus lines and pieces and parts of various hit shows, all of which become part of their finished production, called “Omelette.”

While the first act of “Something Rotten!” supplies the huge setup for what should be a hilarious mashup musical from the vision, the second is dominated by its presentation, which is unintentionally disappointing. Fortunately, too much happens in this show to keep “Omelette” from being too much of a letdown.

For instance, we get to watch Christian Borle, who plays Shakespeare with Elvis’ physicality, Keith Richard’s ultracool demeanor and swollen sense of self, and an excessively padded codpiece. The origins of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, as manufactured for this show, are ingenious.

There’s also the wonderful Heidi Blickenstaff as Bea, Nick’s headstrong wife, the adorable Kate Reinders as Portia, Nigel’s love interest, and Brooks Ashmanskas as Portia’s father, also a closeted leader of a Puritan sect. An extraordinarily talented ensemble fills the stage with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm and Monty Pythonian/Mel Brooksian flair necessary to support such enchanting inanity.

Designers Scott Pask (scenic), Gregg Barnes (costume), Jeff Croiter (lighting) and Peter Hylenski (sound) create a Stratford-on-Avon that looks like a colorful, overstuffed pop-up book, built for sight gags and jaw-dropping production numbers.

Though New York City offers productions for every taste and temperament, “Something Rotten!” is the kind of musical theater experience one thinks of when “Broadway” starts the thought and “big, boisterous and brassy” completes it. “Something Rotten!” is a treat. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Something Rotten!”

WHERE: St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York City

WHEN: Open-ended run

TICKETS & INFO: $52-$252. Call 877-250-2929 or visit rottenbroadway.com

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in January 2016.

Lead photo: The ensemble of “Something Rotten!” PHOTO | Joan Marcus

Broadway’s ‘Spring Awakening’ revival gives wind mighty voice

By Bob Abelman

NEW YORK — Theater becomes more than just amusement when it speaks for those who are denied a voice because they are perceived as different or live in a time of marginalization.

This is why it’s a big deal when current Broadway productions like “Hamilton,” “Fun Home,” “Allegiance” and “The Color Purple” respectively portray and hire members of the Hispanic, LGBTQ, Asian, and African-American communities.

And it’s a big deal when half the cast in the revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s wonderful musical “Spring Awakening” — which opened in September — is comprised of deaf actors playing roles originally conceived as hearing and includes the first wheelchair-bound actor to perform on Broadway.

But nontraditional casting is not what makes “Spring Awakening,” in production at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, great theater. It’s what director Michael Arden, his team of designers, choreographer Spencer Liff, American Sign Language masters Elizabeth Greene, Anthony Natale and Shoshannah Stern, and the 22-member cast do with this unique opportunity.

Based on the once-scandalous 1891 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind, the original production — which debuted on Broadway in 2006 and earned eight Tony Awards — is set in late-19th-century Germany and tells the cautionary coming-of-age tale of teenagers discovering the tumult of sexual longing. The musical depicts the explosive consequences of being denied proper knowledge by overly protective parents and traditionalist teachers. The revival does the same.

What made the original production particularly powerful was that the adolescents were played by actors in their 20s and their story was told in the hard-rocking musical vernacular of our time, complete with anarchist lyrics and contemporary expletives.

What makes this revival additionally effective is that the characters are not disenfranchised just because they are adolescents, but because many of them are deaf. Adding to their alienation is the banning of sign language in schools in the late 19th century and the perception that the inability or unwillingness to lip-read and mimic speech was a sign of inferiority and failure.

Sign language is interwoven into the show’s storytelling, which offers a marvelous and miraculous ballet of vocal and visual expression that not only makes the musical accessible to a deaf audience but also heightens the emotional resonance of a play already brimming with it.

All the cast members, including former Beachwood resident Alex Wyse, sign throughout the production whether they are deaf or hearing, reinforcing their characters’ collective marginalization in the eyes of the adults (brilliantly portrayed by Russell Harvard, Marlee Matlin, Patrick Page, and Camryn Manheim). But the deaf actors also are shadowed by designated hearing actors, including Clevelander Sean Grandillo, who give voice to their signed dialogue and lyrics in distinctive, character-defining ways.

The magnificent Sandra Mae Frank, who plays the featured role of Wendla, hands a guitar to her vocal counterpart, Katie Boeck, who accompanies her on the opening song, “Mama, Who Bore Me,” and subsequent numbers. In fact, most of the orchestra consists of these instrument-playing vocal counterparts, who remain on the open stage as it changes location by way of subtle introduction of a piece of furniture and dramatic lighting, designed by Dane Laffrey and Ben Stanton.

Daniel Durant, a powerhouse as the socially awkward, rebellious student Moritz, hands his vocal counterpart and confident alter ego, Alex Boniello, a microphone before singing/signing the angry “The Bitch of Living.” When Moritz contemplates suicide later in the play, Durant takes the microphone away from Boniello, creating one of many poignant moments not possible in the original version.

Signing choreography takes other creative forms as well.

When the relationship between Wendla and Melchior — played with intelligence and remarkable charm by hearing actor Austin P. McKenzie — turns romantic and they embrace, his left hand and her right engage in synchronized signing during the song “The Word of Your Body,” which makes it all the more intimate.

And when Wendla’s mother (the superb Manheim), who is hearing, employs broken and inept signs, it adds even more weight to their miscommunication and chasm in understanding.

Kathryn Gallagher is Treshelle Edmond’s voice performer, and the two always stay at a distance to represent how their character, Martha, feels removed from her classmates because of her sexually abusive father.

Over time, once the vocal and visual expression blends and is no longer obtrusive, the most powerful moments in the show come in silence, when the dialogue is performed entirely in ASL so the hearing audience gets to experience the isolating world of these deaf characters.

And when Wendla finds out she is pregnant and asks her mother, “Why didn’t you tell me everything” about sex, she does so in her own voice rather than ASL, which makes the moment even more heartbreaking.

The revival of “Spring Awakening” is most certainly an important piece of storytelling because of its bold casting choices. But it’s the brilliant script and score, innovative staging, and the virtuosity of each and every performer that make it absolutely spellbinding. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Spring Awakening”

WHERE: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 246 W. 47th St., New York City

WHEN: Through Jan. 24; soon on national tour

TICKETS & INFO: $59-$249, call 800-276-2392 or visit boxoffice.broadway.com

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in January 2016.

Lead photo: The cast of “Spring Awakening” PHOTO | Joan Marcus