It has been a tough year for the Jews. Mel Gibson set off anti-Semitic smoke alarms with his film The Passion of the Christ. Judith Steinberg Dean let herself be trotted out before the voters just in time to see her husband's presidential campaign implode. And the first fully reconceived Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof since the 1964 original has been faulted for ethnic blandness. Writing in the Los Angeles Times before the show opened, author Thane Rosenbaum (The Golems of Gotham) criticized the show for "an absence of Jewish soul."
Well, it's true that Broadway's newest Tevye, Alfred Molina (painter Diego Rivera in the movie Frida), is of Spanish-Italian heritage. And most of his daughters (and his wife Golde, played by Randy Graff) look like any other Broadway babies on the stage of the mammoth Minskoff Theatre. British director David Leveaux, moreover, has removed or toned down much of the shtetl shtick that has become identified with the show, the sort of thing that has kept Hadassah theater groups happy for decades. But that's no reason to dismiss a striking Broadway revival that manages to shake off the cobwebs and relocate the emotional core of a show too often typecast as your grandmother's favorite musical. This is a Fiddler for everybody.
Still here are the matchless Jerry Bock--Sheldon Harnick songs (has any opening number done a better job of introducing a show's themes, setting and characters than Tradition?); most of Jerome Robbins' original choreography; and Joseph Stein's solid book (based on Sholom Aleichem stories) about a Jewish milkman and his marriageable daughters in the Russian village of Anatevka, in the days before they are uprooted and forced to migrate to America. But Leveaux has ditched the old-fashioned scene changes and set the show on an open stage, with bare trees silhouetted against a translucent blue and orange backdrop. He got Bock and Harnick to write a new song in Act II, Topsy-Turvy, for Yente the Matchmaker (played by Nancy Opel, who stepped in after Barbara Barrie--Harnick's sister-in-law--was dumped when the producers decided she wasn't right for the role). Most important, for a show set in prerevolutionary Russia, Leveaux has taken a revolutionary communal approach: instead of schmaltzy star turns, he forges a cohesive and resonant human drama.
Molina is a younger, more down-to-earth, less clownish Tevye than Zero Mostel, who famously originated the role. The contrast can be seen in one line. Tevye has a recurring debate with God--"on the one hand," "on the other hand"--whenever he faces a moral dilemma. He reluctantly gives his blessing when his first daughter rejects matchmaking tradition and decides to marry the man she loves; he does the same when his second daughter gets engaged to a man who will take her away from home. But when his third daughter chooses a husband outside her religion, he can debate no more. "There is no other hand!" he cries. From Mostel's mouth, it was a howl to the heavens; Molina spits it out abruptly, angrily. He's not suffering for all Jews; he's one man drawing an ethical line in the sand.