Friday, November 6, 2009

Topol is still raising the Roof

The good news, in case you haven't heard, is that the "farewell tour" of Topol in Fiddler on the Roof isn't some tired turn from a star who should have said good-bye to his signature role long ago. Which isn't to say Topol hasn't aged since he first played Tevye the Milkman nearly forty years (and 2,500 performances!) ago. When he starred in the 1971 movie, the actor arguably looked a little young to have three marriage-age daughters; now, we'd believe they're his granddaughters.

But this crafty actor still has what it takes to play Tevye (at left), and he hardly phones his performance in. True, he only occasionally launches his trademarked belly-shaker stomps in "If I Were a Rich Man," but what he sometimes lacks in power, he makes up for in wry understatement and deeper world-weariness. Indeed, his famous conversations with God (done, I have to admit, in Topol's lingering British accent) now have a kind of poignant knowingness they didn't have before, while his comic timing remains as crack as ever.

I suppose the production that surrounds him serves adequately as a frame, although frankly it's better acted than it's sung, and only one other performance, Susan Cella's Golde, seems in Topol's league. The sets also struck me as uninspired - little remains of Chagall (at left) in their design; but the choreography and staging of the great dance numbers, by Sammy Dallas Bayes, hew closely to the Jerome Robbins original.

Which is a good thing, because you don't fiddle around with Fiddler - it's one of those musicals in which the elements of song, dance and staging are so perfectly integrated that the whole package has become iconic. The powerful Norman Jewison film (its wonderful "Tevye's dream" sequence, above) seems to open up the show into a wide, naturalistic landscape, but its not-so-secret trick is that it does so while honoring, almost beat by beat, the Robbins conception (below, the dance in which Robbins conjured a vision of wary integration without assimilation).

Bayes and Co. are perhaps not the equal of Jewison's team, but they do well enough by Fiddler that somehow the greatness of the show itself begins to support and seemingly guide them. For frankly, is there a more profoundly moving musical than Fiddler on the Roof? With the passage of time, it almost seems Shakespearean in its dimensions, and certainly in its ambitions - which were, rather obviously, to somehow encapsulate the many conflicting facets of the Jewish experience; its traditionalism and its progressivism, its faith and its skepticism, its intimacy and its irritations, are all honored and somehow elevated by Fiddler on the Roof, which of course still startles with the mingled hope and desolation in its closing notes. The question that lingers over this tour is not merely the end of Topol's identification with the role of Tevye, but the long-term prospects for this glorious tradition. Without Topol, will Robbins's vision survive outside the long tail of the Netflix queue? A word to the wise seems in order: this may be your last chance to see something like the original Fiddler.

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