With apologies to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, composer and lyricist of "Sunrise, Sunset":
Is that our Rosie in that shmatte?
Is that her singing so off-key?
Actors in other shows stay on pitch
Why can't she?
Who does the choosing of replacements?
Who thought O'Donnell might be fun?
This part requires some technique and
She has none.
Why is --
This stunt still in vogue?
If she's supposed to be in Russia,
Why does she slip into a brogue?
The Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," which opened more than a year ago, has gone off-track from the start. Now, however, with the recruiting of Rosie O'Donnell to play Golde, the ever-vigilant Jewish mother of five dutiful, impressionable daughters, it's turned into a celebrity runaway train. Paired with Harvey Fierstein as a foghorn of a Tevye, the musical feels less its charming self than ever.
A couple of the actors in smaller parts -- notably Michael Therriault as a sweetly sheepish Motel the Tailor and Paul Anthony Stewart as the Jewish activist, Perchik, who shakes up tradition in Tevye's village of Anatevka -- bring a buoyant energy to the evening. But the top-tier roles of Tevye and Golde are make or break in this show, and you can only bend them so far. O'Donnell and Fierstein both have a natural charisma, yet her rudimentary acting skills and his grating vocals put thick walls between you and "Fiddler's" warming, effervescent spirit.
The desire to cast for the box office, to find brand-name actors, is no crime. In recognition of the trend, in fact, the Tony Awards are instituting a new category this year: best replacement actor. The problem comes when actors lack the basic skills. Fierstein and O'Donnell have both performed in musicals before. Fierstein is still fresh off his well-earned success in "Hairspray," and O'Donnell played Rizzo years ago in a revival of "Grease" and, more recently, was a game pinch hitter in the ill-fated "Seussical."
It turns out, though, that what's effective about Fierstein in a dress and with unoiled gears for a voice box doesn't work when he's in peasant gear singing Harnick and Bock's emotionally supple score. And though she recites a Hebrew prayer convincingly, O'Donnell seems hopelessly straitjacketed in the role of the hectoring Golde, who is forever challenging Tevye.
Let's not belabor this one. With apologies, again, to Bock and Harnick, the question must be asked, to the tune of "Matchmaker:"
Casting folks, casting folks, give us a quote:
Why cast a star with such a throat?
Casting folks, casting folks, you should have known,
This "Fiddler" would earn a groan.
Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by David Leveaux. Set, Tom Pye; costumes, Vicki Mortimer; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Acme Sound Partners. With Sally Murphy, Laura Shoop, Tricia Paoluccio, David Wohl. Approximately three hours. At Minskoff Theatre, 200 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.