‘Fiddler’ at the Opera House: A mixed reaction

Through this Sunday, Boston lovers of “Tradition”-al musicals are getting the chance to see the great elegiac “Fiddler on the Roof,” starring the man who has become synonymous with central role of the long-suffering milkman Teyve.

Many elements of the production remind one why this show, despite its painful subject matter, managed for ten years to hold the title of Broadway’s longest-running musical. Other aspects suggest that “Fiddler” and other shows of its ilk may have seen their day.

Over years the original “Fiddler” and its revivals have earned 11 Tony awards. The simple songs, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, retain much of their poignant sentiment – from the wishful “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man” at the top of Act I to the haunting farewell to ”Anetevka” at the end of Act II.

On the other hand, the classic Jewish humor in Joseph Stein’s book (adapted from the short stories of Sholom Aleichem) wasn’t getting the laughter of recognition at Boston’s Opera House last week that the material received in past decades.

The only big name in the cast is Topol, the 74-year-old Israeli actor who has played Tevye more than 2,500 times. His appearance in the show’s West End production in 1967 led to his edging out the Broadway Tevye, Zero Mostel, to star in Norman Jewison’s popular 1971 screen version. He later headed the 1990 Broadway revival as well as other productions around the world including this, his farewell tour.

On the other hand, despite this unmatched experience, Topol’s voice and accent sound a lot like Sean Connery’s, which sound a little strange coming from a humble Russian peasant. The renowned actor has also added lots of Zero Mostel-like shticks to his performance, which gathered scattered yuks here and there, but are at odds with his natural dignified demeanor and the soberness of the story that gingerly skirts tragedies like exile in Siberia and pogroms.

This whole production strives to recall the original multi-Tony-winning experience. Director Sammy Dallas Bayes faithfully reproduces Jerome Robbins’s original stage direction and choreography, which, when the show debuted in 1964, brilliantly translated the culture clash/generation gap of the 60’s into the big dance numbers of the first half.

For the rest, the women all sing nicely, but aside from Mary Stout as the oversized matchmaker Yente, they’re sometimes hard to tell apart.
It will be interesting to see if “Fiddler” and other former sure-fire audience-magnets like “Cats” and “Grease” (scheduled for spring 2010) can still pull in the crowds. Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.