I am not a lover of Broadway, so when the opportunity to attend the VIP Opening Night Gala of The Yiddish Theatre’s Folksbiene “Fiddler on the Roof” at The Museum of Jewish Heritage was presented I was more than a bit reluctant to accept. Going out on a Monday night following a long Hamptons weekend is tiring at best. After much cajoling from my mother who speaks fluent Yiddish and loves the Yiddish Theatre I decided to try something new. The Gala which began with a 5 PM cocktail party and sit down dinner was sold-out weeks in advance with tickets selling for $1,000. The evening honored Jeff Wiesenfeld, Chairman of the Theatre, who is a Principal and Financial Advisor in Bernstein Private Wealth Management’s New York office. Jeff is a lover of all things Jewish and devotes a significant amount of his time to communal institutions. He is the son of Holocaust survivors and sees Yiddish as an integral part of Jewish culture.
This was no ordinary production as actor Joel Grey was tapped to direct and Stas Kmiec to choreograph. Grey is most famous for his role in “Cabaret” but as the homosexual son of Orthodox Jewish parents he was surprisingly faithful to the original script while still injecting a very modern touch. I can only say the three hour production was a smash success rivaling the best shows on Broadway and engrossing the enthusiastic crowd who were oohing and aahing the entire time. Luminaries Dr. Ruth, Leonard Lauder, Dani Dayan, and Jerry Levin along with 400 other attendees could be heard raving about the production. The expert staging, scenery and musical numbers were astonishing. I recently attended the Tony Awards and this show was equally impressive.
Weisenfeld said that the show which is playing through Labor Day is already 75% sold out so if you want your tickets you better hurry up. He also remarked that more than $700,000 had been raised for the Yiddish Theatre which subsidizes its programming for the community with cheap $60 tickets. “Fiddler” which was conceived by Joseph Stein and directed and choreographed by the inimitable Jerome Robbins in 1964, was reinterpreted for this evening with very little being lost in the Yiddish translation. While there were English subtitles on the nearby screen the Yiddish actually added to the authenticity of the play. The only song I wish they would have left in English was “If I Were a Rich Man”. The exceptional part of the evening was the phenomenal cast with Tevye’s Steven Skybell wowing the audience with his authenticity from the opening scene to the conclusion. Skybell can sing, act and emote without ever overplaying the Jewishness of his character-a nearly impossible feat. His essence screamed Tevye and his costars were also phenomenal.
Yente, the matchmaker, played by Jackie Hoffman, was hysterical with each derogatory comment about her deceased husband or finding the right match eliciting guffaws from the audience. The interesting thing about “Fiddler” is the relevancy of its themes in modern day culture. The quandary of how to find the right Shidduch, combat Jewish persecution and avert the escalating threat of intermarriage are as exigent today as they were 50 years ago. Conductor and Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek was instrumental in ensuring the production remained faithful to its conceptual underpinnings and he was joined by phenomenal violinist Alexandrina Boyanova.
While Grey might have been tempted to minimize the response of Tevye to his daughter’s intermarriage he didn’t: Tevye mourned the “death of his daughter” until the last scene when he begrudgingly declares “G-d be With You”! I could see audience members tearing up when he reluctantly wishes his daughter the best without ever forgiving her. Some of my favorite musical numbers included the “dancing with wine bottles” sequence at Tsaytl and Motl’s wedding and the “Tradition” number-these were funny, entertaining and expertly executed. Motl who was played by Ben Liebert was the only glaring miscast; why would the beautiful Tsaytl choose a short tailor as her husband when a more handsome butcher was available.
After a fifteen minute intermission the last hour delved into the forcing of Jews from their town of Anetevka by the edict of the Tsar. As Tevye and his family leave for America he beseeches God to assist him while remaining optimistic about his family’s future. The evening concluded with a lengthy standing ovation for cast members with guests heading to the lobby for an elaborate dessert table and the opportunity to chat with the cast and crew. Choreographer Stas Kmiec was glowing with pride as he explained this show was rooted in tradition and realism; breaking the fourth wall to make it more accessible to the audience. Joel Grey was similarly smiling in a hidden corner as guests ran over to take pictures and congratulate him on this monumental achievement: “blowing the roof off of” the legendary “Fiddler.”
By: Lieba Nesis