When it opened last February, the criticism most frequently leveled at director David Leveaux’s reinterpretation of “Fiddler on the Roof” was that its Tevye, Alfred Molina, was too earnest, too restrained, perhaps even too goyish. Recasting the revival for its second year of life, the producers have drafted Harvey Fierstein, one of the most droll, expansive and Jewish performers in the Broadway pantheon. The move pays off in terms of investing this “Fiddler” with some of its traditional warmth and humor, even if the production remains a subdued emotional experience, connecting more to the head than to the heart.
The announcement of Fierstein’s casting sparked gasps of disbelief among musical theater pundits: Could the campy, larger-than-life actor, who most recently created the role of liberal-leaning progressive Baltimore hausfrau Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray,” play a tradition-bound paterfamilias, struggling against major change in czarist Russia? And could the actor muster the musicality in his raspy, basso profondissimo voice to cope with the demands of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s beloved songs?
The answer is a qualified yes on both counts.
While Molina is a subtle actor, adept at suggesting Tevye’s profoundly burdened, philosophically questioning nature, his sensitively nuanced characterization muted the character’s joyful resilience and earthy exuberance. And for auds with any memory of the two most indelible Tevyes — Zero Mostel in the original Broadway cast and Topol in Norman Jewison’s robust 1971 movie — the natural humor so pronounced in those actors’ line readings was veiled in Molina’s take by melancholy.
Not so in Fierstein’s Tevye, which dusts off the vitality of the role and rediscovers the humor with a crinkled, mischievous smile and a teasing, raised-eyebrow irreverence in the character’s continuing dialogue with God. There’s often a borscht belt vein in Fierstein’s delivery that sits quite well, such as in Tevye’s response to the view that money is the world’s curse: “And may God smite me with it. And may I never recover.”
His Tevye is no less a thinker than Molina’s, but Fierstein’s is a more swaggering physical presence, though not in the burly, masculine way that, say, Topol’s was. A broad, gruffly endearing vaudevillian, Fierstein plays Tevye as a bear, albeit less a grizzly authoritarian than a teddy who just wants to please everyone. While cuddly might not be the character’s fundamental attribute, the actor lends soulfulness and poignancy to the family scenes that help counter the production’s emotional austerity. This is especially so in the sorrowful aftermath of daughter Chava’s elopement.
Plenty of actors without singing voices have finessed key musical roles to their own particular style — Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady,” for one. Fierstein’s phlegmatic growl of a voice is not a pretty instrument and he clearly lacks the vocal range to sock across songs like “If I Were a Rich Man,” here half-spoken.
But he has the necessary charisma and chutzpah in spades. And in the first act in particular, in which most of the beautifully sung ensemble numbers are stacked, Fierstein has the musical support to sell the songs more than adequately.
Surprisingly, it’s in the show’s more delicate, intimate songs that Fierstein’s big-hearted approach works best: the stirringly staged “Sabbath Prayer” and the rueful “Chaveleh” both seem deeply felt. But Fierstein also takes the driver’s seat with a stage veteran’s command on the show’s rousing full-company opener “Tradition” and the celebratory “To Life.”
While Tevye is the heart of any “Fiddler,” Fierstein has sterling backup here from the production’s other principal newcomer, Andrea Martin, in the underwritten role of Tevye’s no-nonsense wife Golde. Joseph Stein’s book has always exhibited a fuller understanding of the male characters than the women: Matchmaker Yente is an abrasive stereotype, while Tevye’s daughters are a vanilla bunch with little to distinguish them.
But with generous spirit and canny comic timing, Martin’s Golde effortlessly establishes herself as the backbone of the family, a loving, level-headed woman inured to managing five daughters and a single-minded husband on minimal means. Thesp represents a considerable improvement over predecessor Randy Graff’s colorless Golde. And Martin and Fierstein play off each other with good-humored affection, especially when warily defining the terms of their relationship in “Do You Love Me?”
The remarkably consistent cast has undergone few changes since the show bowed, and thesps have mellowed satisfyingly into their roles. With Fierstein’s and Martin’s far more comically inflected perfs at the helm, delightful scene-stealer John Cariani as nervously wired tailor Motel — whose jittery, cowed body language has become an even more delirious cartoon — now seems a smoother fit with the production’s overall tenor. Cariani brings an infectious, flapping elation to Motel’s rejoicing “Miracle of Miracles.”
The show’s biggest production numbers also seem to have acquired renewed vigor, notably the richly imagined “Tevye’s Dream” and the energetic restaging of original choreographer-director Jerome Robbins’ boisterous dance at the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel.
Still, whether it’s the stark beauty of Tom Pye’s set — with its economical hints of the shtetl, forlornly ringed by leafless birch trees — or the autumnal chill of Brian MacDevitt’s lighting (there’s no more handsomely designed show on Broadway), the production remains a tad unemotional, even with its new shot of heart. Perhaps it’s due to Leveaux’s contemplative, naturalistic approach that, despite its Chekhovian depths and intelligence, the wrenching force of a play about vanishing traditions, families being torn apart and a persecuted people being forced from their homes into exile never fully takes hold.