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The Theatreguide.London Review

Fiddler On The Roof
Menier Chocolate Factory  Winter 2018-2019; Playhouse Theatre Spring-Summer 2019 

Fiddler On The Roof is a great Broadway musical.

It has a strong book (by Joseph Stein, from the stories of Sholem Aleichem), catchy songs (Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Boch), an excellent balance of comedy and sentimentality, a starring role to die for, and loads of yiddishkeit, Jewish cultural references and emotional evocations everyone can respond to.

In a curious way it is actually an excellent Christmas season show it is, after all, about family and tradition and reconciliation. What's not to like?

Well, the fact that the best that can be said of Trevor Nunn's new production is that it generally stays out of the show's way. It doesn't add much or do as much as it should to bring out the material's strengths.

Fiddler, as if you needed to be told, is the story of Tevye, a Russian-Jewish villager with five daughters to marry off, the ever-present threat of pogroms, and little more than traditions and a strong cultural identity to support him.

And the first weakness in this production lies in the casting of Tevye.

Andy Nyman is talented and personable. But never for a minute will you believe he is a middle-aged Russian Jew of the Nineteenth Century.

Nyman's voice, accent, manner of speaking and way of carrying his body are inescapably those of a young (perhaps even younger than the actor actually is) twenty-first century American. Despite an admirably grizzled beard, he can't help giving the effect of a high school actor sprinkling some white powder in his hair to play an old man.

Nyman sings the songs and tells the jokes. But he can't give Tevye the gravitas he needs for us to feel that this little man's small experiences are worth our respect and sympathy.

I cannot fault Nyman's singing, acting or hard work. It is just that you will always be aware you are watching a performer and almost never catch even a glimpse of the character.

And Tevye so dominates the show that a lack of created reality there makes it difficult for the world around him to be established and sustained. Judy Kuhn is a strong presence in the thankless role of Tevye's wife, but you will have difficulty telling the various daughters apart or even feel more than a costuming difference between the Jewish and Gentile characters.

Something it may be the Menier's limited stage, or the decision to play with the actors in the centre and the audience on three sides gets in the way of director Trevor Nunn's usual mastery of creating strong stage pictures. Things feel cluttered any time more than a handful of characters are onstage, and the big musical numbers are particularly unable to find pleasing shapes.

Tradition (and contractual obligations?) lead most revivals to adapt Jerome Robbins's original choreography for at least two big numbers, To Life and the iconic bottles-on-heads Wedding Dance. And so choreographer Matt Cole shares credit with Robbins.

But the Robbins-inspired dances lose too much of their majesty in a general clutter, and the Cole numbers, like the opening Tradition, are just shapeless.

Decades ago a local New York City bread company ran an ad campaign that featured photos of black, Chinese and otherwise identifiably ethnic people biting happily into a sandwich, with the tagline 'You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's rye bread'.

The same is true of Fiddler On The Roof, even in this too-rarely-more-than-just-adequate production.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Fiddler On The Roof - Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre 2018

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