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Fiddler on the Roof

[Carol Rosegg, Seattle Times]

A touring production of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, is in town this week at the Paramount Theatre. Yesterday morning, Gail and I decided to see it, went on-line, and were still able to buy good tickets for last night’s showing– row J, a little off center. I had been hesitant to commit earlier to going, the memory still in my memory of a negative NYT review of Fierstein’s performance a few years back. But what the heck. We both love the music, a lavish production of the show isn’t going to pass through all that often, so we went.

I believe this is the first time I’ve seen a stage production of Fiddler since its initial run on Broadway in the 1960s. I didn’t have the good fortune at the time to see Zero Mostel as Tevye. My parents did, but by the time they got tickets for us kids, Zero had been replaced by Herschel Bernardi. No complaints. It was great, or so I thought at the time, and I’m happy to remember it as such. Gail came to Fiddler as a movie; she has always identified Tevye with Topol.

We had dinner with Joel before heading downtown to the movie, and I mentioned before leaving that my one fear regarding Fierstein was the difficulty I might have seeing him (or hearing him) without thinking of his role in the 1996 space alien invasion film Independence Day. The role is a minor one, but he plays it so compellingly, or so over the top, that his character stays with me.

That turned out not to be a problem. The problem was that his voice sounded so singularly bizarre that it got in the way of his character time and again. Some words didn’t come through clearly, and there was no hope of his conveying any sort of melody. Sometimes, the quirkiness of his voice worked in his favor, and sometimes it didn’t interfere, but a lot of the time it kept me from settling into the world of the musical. I was too often aware that that was Harvey Fierstein up there, with that famously odd voice, and the voice just wasn’t working well.

Maybe Fierstein was better when he first appeared as Tevye in the Broadway Fiddler revival a few years ago. The revival opened in 2004 with Alfred Molina in the lead. Fierstein must have replaced him at the beginning of 2005. In the NYT on January 21, Ben Brantley reviewed the Fierstein version, and while his comments about Fierstein are largely negative, they are at the same time admiring: “Mr. Fierstein inflects every line with at least a touch of the grandeur of old Hollywood movies, whether he’s being husky with sentimentality, smoky with regret or growly with displeasure. This can be quite a bit of fun. Tevye’s first solo, ‘If I Were a Rich Man,’ takes on a fascinating new life, as Mr. Fierstein slides and rasps through its wordless connecting phrases. But it is sometimes hard to credit this exotic spirit as that of a tradition-bound father who has trouble making the adjustment to changing times. … As for the show’s new Tevye, it would seem that this “Fiddler” has gone from having too little of a personality at its center to having too much of one. Still, as Tevye himself might argue, better an overspiced feast than a famine.”

More to the point for me would be this earlier passage from the review:

. . . audience members . . . may find him a slightly jarring presence.

Tevye must to some degree be an everyman, albeit in exaggerated, crowd-pleasing form. And Mr. Fierstein, bless him, shakes off any semblance of ordinariness as soon as he opens his mouth. Every phrase he speaks or sings, as he shifts uncannily among registers, becomes an event. And the effect is rather as if Ms. Channing were playing one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s simple, all-American heroines in “Oklahoma!” or “Carousel.”

That uncanny shifting of registers was all I could focus on in one early song, perhaps “If I Were a Rich Man.” There was a pitch around which Fierstein appeared to drop an octave or jump up an octave, and he crossed that point repeatedly.

Nonetheless, Fiddler is Fiddler, filled with all those great songs. Golde, played by understudy Rebecca Hoodwin, was excellent. The cast members playing the various young adult roles were most engaging, with lovely voices. We were glad we went.

Time to see Independence Day again.

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