There aren’t many musicals that have made their way into modern culture as much as Fiddler on the Roof. There have been references to the blockbuster musical in everything from television to rock music to movies. The Big Bang Theory recently showed an episode ending with Sheldon Cooper singing “To Life” and Gwen Stefani also recently did a cover of “If I Were a Rich Man.” The musical has paved the way for generation after generation to learn about the Jewish experience in Tsarist Russia, and it still ranks as the seventh most frequently produced musical by U.S. high schools, according to TIME magazine. Musicals like this come with their own “tradition” and too many changes to a beloved favorite like Fiddler can often be a mistake.
Denver Center Attractions is currently presenting the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof staring Harvey Fierstein in the role of Tevya. This tour was originally to be the farewell tour for Chaim Topol in the role, who had to back out in November due to an injured shoulder. Fierstein was announced as Topol’s replacement and he’s been on tour with them since. Fierstein is one of the most recognizable and easily identified Broadway stars due to his many movie roles and of course his trademark raspy voice.
Fiddler, of course, is the story of Tevya, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to keep his family and his religious traditions alive in a time of great change and strife. Based on the book Tevya and his daughters by Sholem Aleichem, the story deals with the issues of faith and customs, as each of Tevya’s strong willed daughters select husbands that move further and further from Tevya’s beloved traditions. Then, in a horrible and tragic twist, all of the residents of Tevya’s town of Anatevka are then forced to leave their homes – on direct orders from the Tsar of Russia.
This touring production is different from the traditional productions in that there is a much stronger focus on the humor of the stories. Fierstein creates a Tevya that laughs and makes comedic poses during dramatic moments, playing it up and hamming for the audience. This is what Fierstein is best at – clearly a man with a fantastic sense of comedic timing and a knack for finding the humor in any situation. Much like the Jewish traditions that this show is based on.
“On the other hand…”
Those comedic moments and playful asides are not always appropriate fitting for the show. Fiddler has its humor, yes, but it also is a deeply affecting and moving story about a whole town of Jewish people that have been forced to leave their home. The music in the show is some of the strongest and most melodic music ever written for the Broadway stage. With such beloved favorites as “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Tradition,” “Matchmaker,” and “To Life.” The harmonies and layered sounds as the character of Tevya blends with the rest of the cast should be haunting and crystal clear. Sadly, this is not something that Fierstein is capable of. His raspy voice clashes with the other voices which then lessens the power of the songs.
One of the saddest and most touching moments of the show is the song titled “Chaveleh (Little Bird)” – in which Tevya sings, wondering where he went wrong and failed his daughter. Yet the raspy voice that was delivering the heartfelt words didn’t create the emotion needed to carry the song. In fact, the emotion and heart to the entire second act lost a tremendous amount of its power – simply due to the fact that none of the songs carried the right harmonies or depth.
“On the other hand…”
The rest of the cast is quite strong. With beautiful performances from Tevya’ three eldest daughters (Kaitlin Stilwell, Jamie Davis, and Deborah Grausman) as well as Tevya’s strong-willed wife Golde (Susan Cella.) The dance numbers are also well done – with the proper energy and emotion behind them all. His voice may not be strong, but Fierstein certainly has the beloved Tevya dance moves down perfectly.
Luckily, Fiddler is written well enough that even these weaknesses do not detract from the fact that it is a strong show and it is still entertaining. Fierstein still embodies the heart and the soul of Tevya, though not the voice – and the role of Tevya (which is arguably one of the most complex and beautiful roles ever written) has been played by some of the finest actors and singers of all time. Not easy shoes to fill. If you have tickets to this show you will still enjoy it. The humor that Fierstein brings is laugh-out-loud funny, and the rest of the cast does a fine job with the music. No, this was not Topol on stage, but then – who is?
For more info:
Denver Center Attractions Present:
Fiddler on the Roof
May 18, 2010-May 23, 2010
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
The classic musical returns
featuring Harvey Fierstein as Tevye.
Tickets start at $15