WHAT "Fiddler on the Roof" (in Yiddish)
WHERE Stage 42, 422 W. 42nd St.
INFO From $59; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE The Yiddish version of the beloved musical packs an emotional wallop.
It is, as Yente might say, a perfect match.
"A Fidler afn Dakh," the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production of "Fiddler on the Roof," was to run just six weeks at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan last summer. Audiences, clamoring to see the beloved musical performed in Yiddish, thought otherwise. It was extended four times, playing its final performance Dec 30. A Broadway move was rumored but eventually producers decided on a safer choice, opting for Off-Broadway's Stage 42.
The show travels well and now resonates with a deeper emotional wallop, the actors having settled into the intricacies of performing in a language not their own. There is much beauty in simply listening to the poetic Yiddish, the language that would have been spoken in those days in the Russian village where the play is set.
The translation by Shraga Friedman (done for a 1966 production in Israel) is not always precise. What we know as "If I Were a Rich Man" becomes "If I Were a Rothschild." But always the meaning is clear (fun to pick out words that have made it into common usage, like "oy vey"). Considering how well most people know the show, the English supertitles are almost unnecessary.
After more than six months in the role, Steven Skybell is becoming a Tevye that rivals greats like Zero Mostel and Herschel Bernardi. His powerful vocals, from the joyful opening “Traditsye" ("Tradition") to the melancholy wedding song "Tog-ayn, Tog-oys" ("Sunrise, Sunset"), command your attention almost as much as his prayerful but pleading conversations with God.
Jennifer Babiak is a Jewish steel magnolia as Golde, and her duet with Tevye ("Do You Love Me?") is a tender rendition of the moving love song. Playing Yente the matchmaker, Jackie Hoffman — who went to high school in Great Neck — makes full use of her comic timing, especially in the lighthearted "The Rumor." But really, the entire cast, to borrow from another song, is a "Wonder of Wonders."
The production sticks closely to the earlier version, replicating Beowulf Boritt's spare set (impressive what can be done with a few tables and chairs) and Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, somewhere between period and contemporary. Staś Kmieć's choreography honors the original work of Jerome Robbins, the famed bottle dance as heart-stopping as ever.
Tony winner Joel Grey directs with loving reverence to the show's history, but also a keen sense of its enduring relevance. When the villagers are forced to leave their homes, some say they will go to America. You have to wonder what kind of welcome awaited them.