This is the production that wasn’t supposed to happen. When Lindsay Posner’s revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” opened last Christmas at the Sheffield Crucible, the West End rights were unavailable. Rave reviews, however, elicited a transfer, and the show has now arrived in London. Yet while the highly praised principal cast remains intact, it’s clear that a funny thing has happened on the way to the Savoy.
In Sheffield, Posner not only had the Crucible’s vast thrust stage, he also had a free hand with all the movement. But for London, Kate Flatt’s choreography has had to be replaced by the original work of Jerome Robbins. Strong as much of that still is, there’s a sense of missed opportunity for a fresh take on well-loved material. Compounding the problem is the Savoy Theater. As this show’s predecessor, “Porgy and Bess,” discovered, it’s a perilously small space in which to stage a musical, especially one with a cast large enough to depict an entire community.
The stage has a fair amount of depth, which makes room for the enveloping curve of Peter McIntosh’s evocative, all-wood, scaffolding-style set. The multipurpose backwall and one side of the set, its slats and struts shot through with Peter Mumford’s light, create the little shtetl in which everyone lives. That’s complemented by a revolve, every angle of which cunningly outlines the many locations demanded.
Unfortunately, the set almost fills the playing space. Posner’s team ensure the cast perform the big numbers with the necessary gusto, but lack of space cramps their style. The bigger the number, the more hemmed in they look, sometimes confined to a corridor across the front so as not to bump into the set. This takes the edge off the expected exuberance.
Indeed, nothing about Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s justly celebrated show is small, from its affecting emotional range to its set pieces, including the full company nightmare sequence and the huge wedding at the climax of act one. Even the central family is outsize. A family in reduced circumstances trying to marry off five daughters? It’s Jewish Jane Austen: a case of pride and prejyiddish.
Bigger still is Henry Goodman’s show-stopping turn as Tevye. As he proved with his matchlessly profound Shylock in Trevor Nunn’s definitive “The Merchant of Venice” at the National, and again as a frighteningly avuncular Goldberg in Posner’s recent revival of “The Birthday Party,” Goodman excels in Jewish roles. Unlike non-Jews faced with the role, Goodman isn’t cowed by fear of stereotyping.
He’s startlingly inventive, filling every moment of his stage time to bursting point. His performance teems with characterful detail — expressive shrugs, florid sighs, blinks of disbelief — as he aggressively struts and frets. At the other end of the scale, his rejection of Chava (Natasha Broomfield), the daughter who marries outside her faith, is seriously powerful because of Goodman’s shockingly unsentimental handling of the scene.
Elsewhere, however, he simply cannot resist piling on the shtick supplied by Stein’s sometimes creaky dialogue. Yes, the role demands such business, but Goodman’s overt desire to underscore and act out every beat tips over to become overbearing. It’s as if he cannot resist showing auds just how much work he’s putting in on our behalf.
As a result, the relationship with Tevye’s supposedly tyrannical wife makes no sense. He’s supposed to be terrified of her, but he’s so dominant that Golde barely makes an impression. And when she’s played by as strong a performer as Beverley Klein, here barely able to make a dent in Goodman’s impregnable armor, then it’s clear the balance is wrong.
The rest of the cast create a touching scene of community, but the atmosphere isn’t as sustained as it might be, with tension dipping between scenes.
Damian Humbley makes the most out of earnest young idealist Perchik, and Michael Conway’s bright Fyedka has a seemingly effortless vocal quality.
The most quietly trenchant performance comes from tall, self-possessed Alexandra Silber as Hodel. Her remarkably secure vibrato and rich, hooded tone is reminiscent of Audra McDonald. Taking leave of her beloved father at the station, her rendition of “Far From the Home I Love” is all the more powerful for the emotion she indicates but refrains from overtly displaying.
Unseen in London since a stop-off by the 30th anniversary touring production in 1994 starring Topol, “Fiddler” is likely to be welcomed back by auds starved of nostalgia. Shoehorned into this theater, however, its chances of long-term survival may be compromised.