With Harvey Fierstein as Tevye, 'Fiddler' roars right along

Raising the "Roof": Harvey Fierstein as Tevye and Susan Cella as wife Golde in the touring production of the 1964 musical.
Raising the "Roof": Harvey Fierstein as Tevye and Susan Cella as wife Golde in the touring production of the 1964 musical. (Joan Marcus)
By Nelson Pressley
Monday, April 19, 2010

Harvey Fierstein is now playing at the National Theatre in a little musical called "Fiddler on the Roof." If top billing seems to be up for grabs between show and star, that's the way it's been ever since Zero Mostel appeared as Tevye the milkman in the 1964 premiere, muttering wearily to God while winking merrily at the audience.

It was said of Mostel that he went too far, but that his irrepressible comic presence was inarguably mesmerizing, and anyway what could you do? Fierstein is very much in that tradition: He is an enterprise unto himself, a show-biz whiz who somehow channels his raspy honk of a voice -- a broken-sounding instrument if ever there was one -- and bear-size presence into a figure the audience adores. He's impish and childish, and by no means do all of his free-spirited punch lines feel absolutely true to Tevye, the hapless Jewish father of five daughters in Anatevka, Russia, circa 1905.

But Fierstein gives the show zestfulness, and he certainly seems to revere the whole shebang. If he borrows laughs now and then at the expense of sincerity, when the saga turns serious he's still formidable enough to tug at your heartstrings. (The show's skillful book, which interrupts the singing and dancing with pogroms and exile, is based on stories by Sholom Aleichem.)

And Fierstein's singing? It's profoundly odd, this husky buzz, but in his peculiar way Fierstein is unquestionably musical. The notes are there -- never glorious, but Tevye's seldom are -- and so is the rhythmic spirit as Fierstein raises his arms and shimmies wishfully through "If I Were a Rich Man." If you leave the theater humming, it'll probably be "Sunrise, Sunset" or one of the other melodies not keyed to Tevye. That's fine: It's mainly a comedic part, and Fierstein has that in spades.

In every other respect, this is a very traditional "Fiddler." It's not a touring version of the 2004 Broadway revival starring Alfred Molina (eventually replaced by Fierstein, with Rosie O'Donnell as Tevye's wife, Golde). Instead, it's a remount of the reverent tour that stopped at Wolf Trap nine years ago. Director Sammy Dallas Bayes is in charge again, re-creating Jerome Robbins's original choreography, and Steve Gilliam has again created a set that recalls Boris Aronson's Chagall-inspired design.

Thus this will look and feel (if not always sound) comfortably familiar to "Fiddler" devotees. The Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick score isn't one of the greats, but it's very good, and the vitality of "To Life" and of the long wedding sequence is still uplifting. The bottle dance is a highlight, as usual, with four earnest revelers balancing wine bottles atop their wide-brimmed hats as they stride and kneel in unison, and the large cast takes eagerly and easily to the Robbins choreography that occasionally catches the whole village in various giddy whirls.

"Matchmaker, Matchmaker" is an expected delight, with Tevye's three older daughters zinging mops between them like dance partners as they contemplate marriage -- the chief engine of the difficult tradition-breaking that gives this piece enduring depth. The cast is sturdy (though some of the young men wooing Tevye's appealing daughters are too bland), and the orchestra zips and strolls through the folksy tunes with authority. It's a somewhat dutiful affair, but you could do worse by "Fiddler" -- especially with such an exotic, cuddly cat commanding center stage.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Fiddler on the Roof

Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Sammy Dallas Bayes. Lights, Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz; costumes, Tony Ray Hicks; music director, David Andrews Rogers. Through May 2 at the National Theatre. Call 800-447-7400 or visit

© 2010 The Washington Post Company