It's Harvey Time

The fabulous Mr. Fierstein makes Fiddler special again

There is no reason why any of us should ever see Fiddler on the Roof again. The iconic songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick are familiar as nursery rhymes, and Joseph Stein's story of Tevye and his family has grown to be a cliché.

Then along comes Harvey Fierstein, and damned if he doesn't make it all fresh and resonant again. As a replacement in the role of Tevye for the ailing actor Chaim Topol, Fierstein totally owns the stage. But he lays claim to his proscenium property in such an open-hearted way that all the other characters are able to find their footing and add luster to his spotlight lead.

One of the delights of Fierstein's performance resides in his matchless voice, a deep guttural instrument so multi-hued that writers have tried in vain to capture it in words. Even as I compare it to the sound a sea lion might make having recently recovered from laryngitis, I know this description falls woefully short.

At first blush, Tevye would seem an odd fit for a man who, some 30 years ago, wrote and starred in the groundbreaking Torch Song Trilogy, a three-act play about a Jewish love-starved drag queen. After all, Tevye is a man long married to a woman, while Fierstein is known for exploring the joys and travails of effeminate gay men, such as in his book for the blockbuster musical La Cage Aux Folles.

But while there are occasional glimpses of Edna Turnblad (the cross-gender role he played in Hairspray), Fierstein plays it mostly straight on the Palace stage, his Tevye bringing unexpected jolts of wit to the tale of a poor milkman with a headstrong wife and daughters. The result is a Fiddler that is entrancing and, in the end, quite moving.

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