A Fiddler on the Roof. Sounds meshuga, no? National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene is presenting a fresh Yiddish version of one of the most famous Broadway shows with both Yiddish and Russian translations at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. This is the first time that this production has been staged in the US and who more perfect to direct it than Joel Grey. The title of the production appears as “Fidler Afn Dakhwas.”
Having been seated I viewed the stage to see: a small pile of tables on the left and three hanging curtains that gave an appearance that they were made of a light brown cloth. The middle one had large letters written in Yiddish. I have learned that the difference in lettering from Hebrew is that Yiddish lettering does not have the Hebrew vowels. It spelled out the word “Torah,” the five books of Hebrew scripture, or more widely known as the Five Books of Moses. An orchestra sat directly behind the curtains.
It was at this point that I checked out the program first noticing an important message. “Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics and Joseph Stein’s book for Fiddler On The Roof were translated into Yiddish by Shraga Friedman, a native of Warsaw who emigrated to the Land of Israel at the outbreak of World War II. Friedman became a well-known director, actor and translator who appeared in many films and on the stage of Habima, the national theater of Israel.”
“Fidler Afn Dakhwas first performed in Israel in 1965. This production marks the premiere in the United States. The translation directly quotes Sholom Aleichem’s original stories of “Tevye the Dairy Man”’ most notably during Tevye’s quotations (and misquotations) of the scriptures. Occasionally you will note slight departures from the familiar words of the English language text. Translating is an art form in and of itself. In order to match Harnick’s brilliant rhyme scheme, the meter of Jerry Bock’s unforgettable tunes and Joseph Stein’s rich idioms, Friedman sometimes needed to alter the literal meaning of a line, in order to preserve the emotional spirit.”
“For example, the beloved song ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ is translated by Shraga Friedman as ‘Ven Ikh Bin a Rotshild’ (If I Were a Rothschild). This not only fits in perfectly with the meter of the song, but also invokes the title of another well-known Sholom Aleichem story and employs a commonly used Yiddish expression which indeed means ‘If I were a rich man.’”
“The artistic team has decided to share these variances with you in the supertitle translations in order to maintain consistency between what you are hearing in Yiddish and how it is translated back into English and Russian.”
Translations in both Yiddish and Russian appeared on the left and right sides at the top of the stage. Each of the musical numbers gives the title in Yiddish along with the English title in parenthesis. In case you never saw the production or movie, the play is set in Russia, 1905 and based on tales from the author Sholem Aleichhem.
The show begins as Der Fidler appears and perks herself atop the tables. This is the first time I have seen a woman cast as the Fiddler. She actually comes onto the stage and plays the fiddle several times during the performance, which kind of makes more sense to the title.
Out comes Tevye to perform Traditsye (Tradition) as we meet the entire cast. Tevye is portrayed by a quite talented Steven Skybell who captures the character perfectly being “larger than life” but without overdoing it playing the role more intense and solemn in both acting and singing. Skybell is not new to Broadway or Fiddler as he had the role of Lazar Wolf in the 2015 revival. My guess is that he will be well-known for this role.
Golde (Jennifer Babiak) was well cast. Although she gave an excellent performance, I couldn’t help but notice that her costume seemed to make her appear as if she escaped from the Sound of Music, looking like a nun.
While Emmy-nominated stage veteran Jackie Hoffman does not work with the Yiddish Theater, she was the feature performer playing the role of Yenta, one which requires both humor and great facial expressions.
As for the rest of the cast, it’s just easy enough to say that the caliber was as if you had seen it on Broadway. Singing, dancing, acting…all great. What I particularly noticed is that this production is not played for laughs but is certainly not void of humor. Kudos to Joel Grey.
My favorite production in Fidler is Der Kholem (The Dream) of which Tevye concocts in order to tell Golde that their daughter, Hodl, is going to marry Motl Kamzoyl (Ben Liebert) rather than the verbally agreed upon butcher Leyzer-Wolf.
Musical Numbers: Act I: Traditsye (Tradition); Shadkhnte, Shadkhnte, (Matchmaker, Matchmaker); Ven Ikhbein a Rotshild; Shabes Brokhe (Sabbath Prayer); Lekhayim (To Life, Lekhayim); Es Kumt a Tog (Any Day Now); Zey Hobn Zikh Gegebn Dos Vort (They Made Each Other a Pledge); Nisimlikh-Veniflo’oys (Miracle of Miracles); Der Kholem (The Dream); Tog-ayn, Tog-oys; (Sunrise, Sunset).
Act II: Itst Hob Ikh Di Gantse Velt (Now I Have Everything); Tevyes Entfer (Tevye’s Rebuttal); Libst Mikh, Sertse? (Do You Love Me?); Der Klang (The Rumor); Vayt Fun Mayn Liber Heym (Far From the Home I Love); Khavele (Khavele); Anatevke (Anatevke).
Even though this production is more intimate than its Broadway version, none of the characters are missing and each of the dance numbers did not lack due to size. Most impressive are Lekhayim (To Life, Lekhavyim) and the Bottle Dance performed during the wedding. We have to thank Stas Kmiec who both choreographed and staged the musical numbers. It is also apparent that not having a celebrity “Broadway name” detracts from the shear talent that goes into this awesome presentation.
The orchestra, conducted by Zalmen Mlotek, consisted of: trumpets, bass, flute, alto flute, trombone, cello, guitar/mandolin, drums/percussion, accordion, and violin along with the clarinet Klezmer soloist, D. Zisl Slepovitch, who made a few appearances on the stage. Costumes are most authentic wearing “shtetl” clothing.
I have seen Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway as well as the movie version. I have even acted the part of Yenta in Community Theater and as Golde in a Dinner Theatre production. Fidler Afn Dakhwas has been the best I’ve experienced and from the sound of the audience, they too agree.With so much anti-semitism presently existing, expect many tears to shed, especially towards the end. “Our forefathers have been forced out of many, many places at a moment’s notice.” Tevye responds: “Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats.”
Museum of Jewish Heritage, located in Battery Park City is the present venue, running until December 30. It will transfer uptown to off-Broadway’s Stage 42 (422 W 42nd St.) where it will begin previews on Monday, February 11, 2019 and open officially on Thursday, February 21, 2019. Some of the cast members will change.