Less than a decade has passed since the last revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Fiddler on the Roof” had its sunrise, sunset on Broadway. And now Bartlett Sher, the director of sparkling Tony-winning revivals of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics “South Pacific” and “The King and I” at Lincoln Center, has taken on this beloved chestnut in a moving but occasionally muddled new Broadway production.
As in his previous work, Sher begins by honoring the lustrous score, deploying a full 22-member orchestra to bring now-classic songs like “Tradition,” “To Life” and “Sunrise, Sunset” to rich melodic life. And he grounds the familiar story of an Orthodox Jewish milkman in unwelcoming czarist Russia with an admirable simplicity and a humanist approach to the characters.
Danny Burstein brings warmth and humor to Tevye, the milkman who addresses God as he confronts threats to his family and his community. Though he brings plenty of laughs, Burstein admirably avoids making Tevye into a mere shtick figure. Jessica Hecht, admittedly not the strongest singer, makes a similarly naturalistic impression as his shrewd, resourceful wife, Golde. Their approach adds an authentic poignancy to their second-act duet “Do You Love Me?”
The supporting cast is also excellent, led by Alexandra Silber, Samantha Massell and Melanie Moore as Tevye’s three oldest daughters who each yearn to defy the tradition of arranged marriages and choose their own spouses. Of those husbands-to-be, Adam Kantor makes the most striking impression as the poor but earnest and hard-working young tailor Motel.
So how do you find a fresh angle on a musical that’s become a staple of high schools and community theaters everywhere? Sher favors a kind of streamlined simplicity. He eschews the familiar turntable sets of past Broadway productions for Michael Yeargan’s low-tech storybook designs that rely on mostly two-dimensional drops and elements like fences and trees that are wheeled on and off stage by chorus members or black-clad stagehands (as the supporting players did in Sher’s 2014 production of “Bridges of Madison County”).
Livelier is Hofesh Shechter’s choreography, which nods to Jerome Robbins’ dance routines from the original production (and the 1971 movie) without being slavish to, well, tradition. The bottle dance during the wedding scene is a well-deserved showstopper.
Some of Sher’s innovations seem ill-advised, though, including a framing device suggesting that Tavye’s descendants survive the Russian pogroms to become barn-jacket-wearing modern American Jews. During his bizarro interpretation of Tevye’s dream sequence, he relies on bluish lighting and elongated performers on stilts as if trying to channel Marc Chagall by way of Julie Taymor.
But the oddest touch, and the one that clashes most with his back-to-the-basics aesthetic, comes in the show’s introduction of the fiddler (Jesse Kovarsky), who flies about the stage like a Hebraic Mary Poppins.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is a great show, and its durability is key to its longevity. If it can survive Rosie O’Donnell as Golde (as a replacement in the last Broadway revival), it can survive some of Sher’s infelicities. And even those are relatively few, and mostly confined to the first act.
By the finale, the production settles into the routine of rejection — of a daughter who weds outside the faith, of an entire community cast out for that very faith. (In czarist Russia, it seems, goys will be goys.) And audiences will feel the customary tug of sentiment, caught up in the sweep of this family, this village and this culture. As Tevye might ask, Do you love me? How can anyone resist?