Playhouse Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
In December 1976 on my first visit to New York, I saw the late great Zero Mostel walking down Broadway. He would have been about 61 at the time but looked eighty – I assumed it was the strain of eight shows a week recreating Tevye in the revival of Fiddler on the Roof – but actually, he was dead within the year.
That’s quite a cheerful tale compared to the depressive narrative of the musical set in Tsarist Russia in 1905 where impoverished people sing endlessly about tradition as though it was their birthright to be broke, ignorant, maniacally religious and occasionally beaten up by the Cossacks.
No cliche has been left unturned in Trevor Nunn’s thorough and intense production recently transferred from the Menier to the Playhouse. Dressed entirely in shades of charcoal, soot and lampblack, mad-eyed women and mad-bearded men wail the kletzmer-inspired anthems with their eyes rolling heavenwards and their arms in the air as though their lives depended on it. Every damn time they sing.
It is undoubtedly the granddaddy of ‘Jewish Musicals’, but it’s hard to love. That is a genre, by the way, and most of the others manage to be cheerful at least till the Nazis show up, and dramatic thereafter: Fiddler just doesn’t.
Cabaret, of course, has the best fun but Ragtime also has great tunes and the story of Lithuanian Jewish migration is interwoven with others for musical variety. Two years earlier than Fiddler, I Can Get it for you Wholesale didn’t take itself seriously at all, not even with a desperate-to-succeed 19-year old Barbra Streisand overacting the hell out of ‘Miss Marmelstein’.
Incidentally, Tzeitel, the feisty daughter who resists an arranged marriage, was played during the original run of Fiddler by Bette Midler two years before she was discovered at the Continental Baths. She couldn’t rescue it, either. Although this is a rare clip.
Andy Nyman does sterling work to bring Tevye off the page, breaking the fourth wall to chat with the Almighty, and rubbing his arthritic joints to punctuate Sheldon Harnick’s lazy ‘deidle deidle deidle dumb’ lyrics in ‘If I Were A Rich Man’.
Elsewhere, the daughters are indistinguishable, the redoubtable Louise Gold has to punch all her lines to get anything out of Golde the Matchmaker, and bringing the wonderful Judy Kuhn over from America mostly to peel potatoes for the first act seems a waste of her undoubted talents.
Look, I don’t want to be a total meschuggenah. The Playhouse Theatre has gone the full shtetl with an ambitious extension of the set round the auditorium so you feel part of the village of Anatevka.
If you like Fiddler on the Roof, you will love this version. If you don’t, it won’t convince you, but that’s the fault of the 1964 script, not the 2019 production.
until 28 September