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SCHIZOID ON THE ROOF

Fiddler on the Roof isn’t quite as bad as you fear it would be. Certainly not what youd call a melodic musical, and it doesnt have anyone youd hail as a powerhouse musical star, though Topol, winning the movie role over Broadway originator Zero Mostel, tries damned hard to be the house of power. Fought my displeasure in the way director Norman Jewison pivots the production to stress the ghetto settings and straggly Orthodox beards as pointers to the constancy of pogroms and forced exile. That and photographer Oswald Morris having to contend with weather conditions in the Croatian cities of Zagreb, Gorica, Lekenik and Mala providing all the unwanted cloudy backgrounds, theres an unusually depressive atmosphere that bucks against the musical form. With many exteriors looking as if theyre about to be hit with one kind of storm or another, with Topol often looking like an ice-packed Omar Sharif coming off the tundra, and with Russian military horsemen once again slashing away at scapegoats, you end up wanting to escape to Zhivago Heights and for once the sham of Leans Russia is preferable. This dislocation of the visual and emotional doesnt happen on the stage: Jews more than empathetic Gentiles line up to see the folksy Fiddler as theatre because being there facilitates a deep and satisfying sense of community, of ethnic camaraderie. Despite the blockbuster the movie became, and excepting the “Bottle Dance” and viewers mellowed by a couple of tiny triples, I doubt if many left with the same unified exhilaration. Not with this boorish Topol on the edge so intensely enacting religious ethnicity and paternal authority that he creates inversion as well as alienation, not just with outsiders but more damagingly with family; its very clear why his daughters, who love him, want to get the hell away from him. Charging through the role of Tevye as if on offense, Topal trumps the impossible by making you miss Mostels brand of pre-Barney-on-tiptoes schmaltz, his tons-of-fun vaudeville. Topals determination to stay in grating chauvinist character, maintaining chilling control over his wife, is not only false to the storys family values—in spite of fears of censure, no mother could refuse to rush to hug a daughter whose departure (to Krakow) may mean that theyll never see one another again—it’s also a betrayal to Jewish musical tradition, which abhors seriousness. Topal’s potency is in being an intransigent schizoid; hes Ariel Sharon channeling Benjamin Netanyahoo. As the stifled wife, Norma Crane speaks as if just about all her lines have been post-dubbed, and probably were, and given the way she looks, she could be Suzanne Pleshettes mother. (A scrapper, Miss Pleshette would not have been happy about the comparison.) The daughters are at least adequate, with one of them looking like an off-off Broadway Streisand. When Leonard Frey enters you fight extra-hard even after all these years to get past that creep he played in The Boys in the Band. His innate effeminacy isnt that entertaining, not in the way it would with, say, Kevin Kline, or young Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, or Sean Hayes, all of whom could get away with sitting in front of a sewing machine. (I’ve used the McVickers Theatre as a Chicago venue when in fact it first opened at McClurg Court; no pictures of its inadequate marquee are adaptable.) Oscar wins for best cinematography (Morris), sound, scoring: adaptation and original score (John Williams); Oscar nominations for best film, actor, director, supporting actor (Frey), art direction. Panavision.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2003 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.