Tevye is a mensch. In director Bartlett Sher’s thoughtful but uneven revival of the enduring, endearing musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Danny Burstein – a longtime Broadway veteran stepping at last into a starring role as comfortably as a favorite slipper — brings charm, decency and depth of feeling to the role of a Jewish dairyman living in a shtetl in pre-Revolution Russia with his wife, Golde, and their five daughters. Some may take exception to some of Sher’s tinkering with the template of the beloved title, but few will find fault in Burstein’s gentle, lovable man of faith, family and community. What’s not to like?
The personal intimacy of Tevye’s casual conversations with God, not to mention the easy rapport Burstein has with the audience, only intensifies the humor and humanity of the classic material, and should prove an attractive draw for both first-timers and returning fans of the show.
But the first time we see him it isn’t as the iconic peasant trying to find his place in God’s universe but rather as a present-day searcher — we know this because he is dressed in a synthetic winter parka — checking out the old country, perhaps discovering his heritage, perhaps doing research for the show. A faded train sign on a nearly bare stage indicates he’s in a place once known as Anatevka as he reads from a battered book, presumably the stories of Sholom Aleichem, on which the musical is based.
This wordless prologue is broken by the plaintive playing of a lone fiddler, followed by the introduction of the community of Jewish villagers emerging from the back depths of the stage, introducing themselves and their place in the community in the familiar song “Tradition,” gaining strength in their increasing numbers and certainties. It’s a bold and powerful opener — and a break from traditional staging — that gives a fresh, spare and intimate perspective, which are Sher’s signature strengths, evident in chamber pieces like “The Light in the Piazza” or “The Bridges of Madison County” and on the larger stage canvases of “South Pacific” and “The King and I.”
But other touches seem unfinished, unclear or labored. The re-appearances of the symbolic fiddler (at one point he flies across the stage less like a floating Chagall figure than like Peter Pan) don’t connect to the staging with much specificity, and a brick-wall backdrop that finally reveals a white scrim is disappointingly underwhelming. Jewish villagers are told they have to leave their homes in a barn whose open slats evoke, rather heavy-handedly, freight train compartments yet to come.
But other moments resonate anew. When Tevye draws a curtain between himself and his third daughter Chava, cementing their estrangement, it’s heartbreaking. The sister’s bonding in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” gives the bouncy waltz a more nuanced subtext, and the staging of the endless march of huddled masses of refugees — with its additional end note — will no doubt strike contemporary chords.
Registering strongest among the new perspectives of this production are the new movements and dances from Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, based on the original staging by Jerome Robbins. Schechter finds his own conceptual vocabulary, especially in its grounded and raw folkloristic moves and its uplifting hand filigree, while at the same time paying tribute to Robbins.
But it takes a village to make this familiar tale feel real as well as revived, and most of the cast breathes natural air into the production — sometimes with idiosyncratic touches that pop, and a few that fall flat.
Jessica Hecht resists sentimentalizing the strong-willed, no-nonsense Golde. While perhaps missing some easy laughs, she gains in honesty, bringing a shaded take in “Sunrise, Sunset” and turning her duet with Tevye, “Do You Love Me?,” into a delicious delicacy from the humblest ingredients. On the other hand (as Tevye would say), Alix Korey lands every laugh in her limited stage time as matchmaker Yente without sacrificing authenticity of feeling.
The trio of marriageable daughters (Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell and Moore) are solid, if not exceptional, as are their suitors: Adam Kantor as the ever-agitated tailor Motel, Ben Rappaport as the fiery student Perchik and Nick Rehberger as Fyedka, the Russian.
But in the end it’s Burstein who carries the show just as Tevye hauls his horseless milk cart, lifting it with a warm smile, a gentle humor and an open heart as he and his fellow exiles continue their universal search for a more promising land.