NEW YORK (AP) — The Tevye who first emerges in the latest revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” is wearing a modern winter jacket and reads the opening lines tentatively, as if from a history book. Then he strips off the jacket and melts into 1905.
It’s a simple and elegant way to connect the past with the present and the first sign that you are in thoughtful hands. The “Fiddler” that opened Sunday at the Broadway Theatre under the leadership of director Bartlett Sher is vibrant and brilliant and heartfelt.
Over at Lincoln Center, Sher and his team this past spring breathed life into that dusty show “The King and I” and lightning has struck twice here. They’ve made one of the last great musicals of Broadway’s Golden Age urgent and profound.
Set in rural, pre-Revolutionary Russia, the tale of Tevye and fellow Russian Jews being forced to flee is a universal one. But audiences at this revival won’t be able to miss the parallels to real life as Europe witnesses the greatest movement of refugees since World War II.
Still, it’s Tevye’s battles with tradition that is at the center of this classic Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein musical, with a list of songs that are pure bliss. And the musical usually rises or falls on the performance of its leading man.
This time, it’s Danny Burstein and he is superb, just the right amount of humor and anger and endless love. Burstein, a veteran of “Cabaret” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” is a playful and human Tevye, without falling into stereotype or precedent. He sometime cheekily addresses the audience, as if to enlist our support in his various conversations with God.
His three rebellious daughters are also sublime, from Alexandra Silber’s soulful Tzeitel to a luminous, heartbreaking Samantha Massell and a bookish-revolutionary Melanie Moore. They are a joy to hear and watch as they weigh their new romances with the heartbreak they are making their father endure.
The only odd note in this show is Jessica Hecht’s Golde, who is too shrill and one dimensional, and struggles with the vocal requirements. She never reveals her crusted-over warmth and her duet with Tevye “Do You Love Me?” is consequently underwhelming.
But brilliant touches are everywhere elsewhere. When Tevye says goodbye to Hodel, he wraps his scarf around her neck, a gesture echoed by Golde doing the same a few scenes later with Chava. When Motel sings about God making the Red Sea part, he dunks his hands into a pail of real water.
These are small things but they add up to that taken-care-of feeling you get at a great restaurant, of a team that has thought of everything. This is a show that has somersaulting dancers and real Sabbath candles, but never loses its focus.
Michael Yeargan’s scenic design includes a nifty wooden house, a door on wheels that turns with smart ease and trees that glide (as well as a forest that floats in midair). The cast moves the pieces themselves, a touch consistent with their hardscrabble roles. In one scene, a simple curtain is used to separate actors, with heartbreaking results.
Catherine Zuber’s costumes stay close to the period — gray coats and long boots — but she has some fun with the long black jackets worn by dancers in the inn during the famous Bottle Dance. They look like extras from “The Matrix.”
Sher, in this dance and at a wedding scene, pushes the boundary of tradition by adding some female dancers dressed as men. Whether it’s his subversive wink or simply a way to add more depth to scenes is left unexplained.
Choreographer Hofesh Shechter has nods to the original creator Jerome Robbins, but adds a signature image of dancers bending at the middle with arms raised to the sky, as if in perpetual prayer.
There is a welcome naturalism to this “Fiddler.” Donald Holder’s lighting design conjures pale bleakness and low winter sun. But naturalism goes out the window for “Tevye’s Dream,” when a thrilling sort of New Orleans Mardi Gras parade madness takes hold. Dancers in masks and elongated fingers — some on stilts — add a surreal, humorous touch and fill the massive stage.
It all adds up to a remarkable achievement. From the first moment to the profound last, this “Fiddler on the Roof” is a triumph. The show is the star.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press