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NY Theater Reviews

Steven Skybell and company/ Ph: Victor Nechay/ProperPix

KEEPING WITH TRADITION

By SANDY MACDONALD

The schmaltz goes down more easily in Joel Grey's deft production.

Americans are notoriously hostile to subtitles – as if English were the acknowledged global lingua franca, or ought to be. So familiar, though, are the songs and dialogue of the 1964 classic musical Fiddler on the Roof (I defy you to find a high school that hasn’t put it on) that the surtitles flanking Beowulf Boritt’s strikingly minimalist set – just some sweeping muslin or paper panels, one inscribed with the characters indicating “Torah“ – seem almost superfluous. They’re worth checking out, though, to savor Shraga Friedman’s felicitous approximations: “Ven Ikh Bin a Rothshild,” for instance, in lieu of “If I Were a Rich Man.”
 
That starter song sets up the ongoing debate between dairyman Tevye (earthy, vibrant Steven Skybell) and a thus-far less than communicative God. With a subtle twist too often missing from more simplistic interpretations, Skybell brings an enlivening, unsaccharine skepticism to Tevye’s paean to the old ways as an antidote to social chaos: “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” We sense from the get-go that, scripturally speaking, this Tevye is a soft touch, much too taken with his wife and five daughters to deny any of their hearts’ desires.
 
The family dynamic here is enhanced enormously by Jennifer Babiak’s smart but non-shrewish turn as Golde. Where Jessica Hecht suggested, in the 2015 Broadway revival, an overburdened spouse reduced to crabby resentment, Babiak’s Golde is a take-charge sort, the kind of woman who might seem overbearing at first but also instantly instills confidence. The fact that Babiak has an angelic voice, silk to Skybell’s rough burr, makes for some transcendent duets.
 
With the possible exception of the usually hilarious Jackie Hoffman in the plum part of the Yente (at this particular performance, she appeared to be phoneticizing it in), director Joel Grey has marshaled an excellent 27-member cast who seem to be having the time of their lives. Odds are, you’ll be swept right along.