Review: ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

The ads trumpeting the entry of Rosie O'Donnell into "Fiddler on the Roof" proclaim, "Harvey Fierstein has finally met his match!" What's most significant about this latest cast overhaul is her pairing with Fierstein, which underlines the uniqueness of commercial theater in America as a mainstream artistic arena in which an actor's offscreen sexuality is irrelevant.

As if Yente had suddenly turned marketing maven, the ads trumpeting the entry of Rosie O’Donnell into the cast of the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” proclaim, “Harvey Fierstein has finally met his match!” Indeed, while O’Donnell makes an agreeably grounded Golde, what’s most significant about this latest cast overhaul is less her perf than her pairing with Fierstein, which underlines the uniqueness of commercial theater in America as a mainstream artistic arena in which an actor’s offscreen sexuality is irrelevant.

After O’Donnell’s chastening failure producing “Taboo,” “Fiddler” serves just fine as a vehicle to deliver her back to Broadway (of which she was a tireless promoter during her talkshow years). Golde is a low-key part with few major vocal demands, and O’Donnell knows not to push too hard. She’s an ideal foil for Tevye’s more volatile life force, her feet planted firmly on the ground while he kvetches at God or vacillates to the inner tennis match of his reasoning.

In film and television, the boundaries in gay character and storyline depiction have eroded over the past decade, but openly gay actors have not become much more visible. The Broadway community operates by different rules, however. Gay actors, directors and producers regularly stroll the Tony Awards’ red carpet with their same-sex partners on their arms, and acceptance speeches are peppered with gushing tributes to them.

Only in such an environment could a ferociously out gay man and lesbian, both of whom have served as gay political spokespersons, be enlisted to embody the archetypal Jewish mama and papa. And guess what? Onstage, their sexuality is a nonissue. Fierstein and O’Donnell bring a certain toughened tenderness to the roles of Tevye and Golde that makes them entirely believable as a couple thrown together by a matchmaker who have somehow endured and, quite unwittingly, fostered a rough-hewn love for each other.

O’Donnell’s round Irish face is hardly a natural fit for the shtetl (she looks downright scary in her hard-hat wig for Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding), and her barely serviceable singing voice poses no threat to Patti LuPone. But Golde is the anchor of the family, and O’Donnell makes her a solid, good-naturedly stern proponent of no-frills pragmatism.

As reported when he took over the role in January, Fierstein’s humor has shifted Tevye away from the somber introspection of his predecessor, Alfred Molina, back toward the more boisterous and impassioned original model. In the intervening nine months, however, Fierstein’s Yiddish shtick has been ratcheted up several more notches, which sometimes plays against the overriding solemnity of David Leveaux’s production.

In his trademark raspy tones, the actor punctuates his dialogue with an inexhaustible series of elongated variations on the classic “Oy,” inventing several dozen new vowels in the process. He even snorts like a horse on occasion. Fierstein is a rare breed of musical comedy performer, and part of the joy of watching him is his mischievous tweaking of a role. But more is not always a good thing, especially in a show already somewhat ponderously paced.

Much as he gets steady laughs, it’s in the soulful, melancholy shadings of a father pained by the threat to his family and way of life that Fierstein really nails the character. Indeed, his singular vocal growl is put to most effective use not in showpieces like “If I Were a Rich Man” but in somber numbers like “Sabbath Prayer,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Chavaleh.”

Given that singing is neither Fierstein’s nor O’Donnell’s strength, the chief burdens of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s classic song score fall to the featured players and ensemble. In this aspect, the production is in impeccable shape.

Sally Murphy, who has been with the revival since it opened, remains a lovely Tzeitel, matching endearing physical awkwardness with vocal sweetness. Among the newer cast members, Michael Therriault has rescued nervous tailor Motel from the cartoonland to which John Cariani had catapulted him, giving a restrained, appealing perf. Laura Shoop as Hodel, Paul Anthony Stewart as Perchik and Patrick Heusinger as Fyedka all make winning impressions.

Fiddler on the Roof

Minskoff Theater; 1,691 seats; $100 top
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