Ranking high among musicals, Fiddler on the Roof rates a 10 for Joseph Stein’s book, a 91⁄2 for the Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick score, and a resounding 10 for the Jerome Robbins choreography. The current revival earns an 8, which for David Leveaux, whose previous direction of Nine nearly scuttled that show, is pretty good. He has made changes, some for the better, some not. Most commendably, in addition to preserving the Robbins dances, he has resisted making the show what the original production verged on, caricature. There are no heavily Yiddish-inflected accents, there is less heftily farcical business, and both Tevye (the marvelous Alfred Molina) and Golde (the magnificent Randy Graff) are young and attractive, which merely enhances their winning performances. Nancy Opel, as Yente, the matchmaker, forgoes stereotype, without any loss of humor or Jewishness.
That the production is more ecumenical than previous versions is to be applauded; accusations that the show has been goyified are baseless. Leveaux’s pacing is brisk and his spacing painterly. He uses the full depth of the Minskoff stage and creates lively panoramas, abetted by Tom Pye’s brilliant set design. The gaunt Chekhovian birches add a subtle melancholy beauty, and various sliding panels induce shifts in time and atmosphere, as do raised or lowered lanterns. And whenever a large added space stage right is revealed, something riveting, poetic, or dramatic ensues. Suspending Tzeitel and Motel in midair during the splendid dream sequence adds a nice Chagallian touch. Other changes are less fortunate. Thus when the desperate Yente tries to arrange a match between Tevye’s two youngest girls and a couple of boys—all tots or nearly—the effect should be hilarious; making the girls nubile and the boys young men, as they are here, kills the joke.
The score comes across rapturously, and the dancing, supervised by Jonathan Butterell, thrills. Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are perfect, even for the onstage orchestra, another Leveaux plus that adds color and animation to the proceedings and, obviating an orchestra pit, creates intimacy with the audience. The great lighting designer Brian MacDevitt bathes the show in—dare I say it?—magic. All the performers are fine (what if some of them look more Upper East Side than Eastern European?), but Laura Michelle Kelly deserves special praise for her singing, acting, and looks, as Hodel.
More good news: A. R. Gurney’s Big Bill, despite some shortcomings, is the best of the latest batch of nonmusical offerings. The subject is terrific. What to do about a man like Bill Tilden, epochal tennis champion, man of breeding, elegance, and charm, but also a pedophile? Psychiatry can do nothing for him, jail even less. People who know him can forgive him just about anything. But still, a pedophile, and recidivist at that. This is a problem with no solution, the stuff of tragedy. I don’t know whether the real Tilden was quite as lovable as Gurney makes him out, but the play is based on solid research, and as the dazzling John Michael Higgins plays Tilden, in a performance no one should miss, the man is irresistible down to his flaws. How can you condemn him? How can you not?
The approach could be deeper, broader, more rigorous. But it is good enough, and the shuttling perspective between Bill in his witty, winning glory and Bill in his pitiful collapse keeps the dichotomy achingly alive. The victimized ball boys may have been more vulnerably younger than shown, and there was more than the one prison term included. But the essence is there: in Higgins’s superlative performance, in the solid supporting cast, in John Lee Beatty’s idyllic grassy tennis-club set (Newport still has something like it), and in Mark Lamos’s fluid, sympathetic direction. Look around at what else there is by way of drama, and be very, very grateful.
That else is, for one horrible example, Paul Weitz’s Roulette, ranging from smart-ass to asinine. It has been described as a comedy of suburban anomie, but anomaly and animality are nearer the mark. Russian-roulette-playing Dad starts out suicidal and ends up farcically insane; Mom is a wet dishrag sleeping with Neighbor; Sonny is a maniacal lunatic; Sis is a druggie bitch. Neighbor is a randy, selfish, cowardly oaf; Mrs. Neighbor is a nutcase yearning for the nunnery, although when demented Dad, who should never have been unhospitalized, keeps taking her for his wife and the apartment for a casino, she may be unable to resist him.