July 3, 2021 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“Tevye in New York!”, The Wallis, Beverly Hills, June 23 – July 25, 2021
In Brief: Neither as funny or as satisfying as it might have been, Tom Dugan’s one-man show is still an agreeable evening under the stars in The Wallis’ nifty new socially-distanced outdoor performance space.
Did you ever wonder what happened to Tevye and his family after they fled Antevka? Me neither. Nor did Joseph Stein, whose efficient yet graceful book for Fiddler on the Roof perfectly encapsulated the sweetness and eventual sadness of Jewish life in Czarist Russia.
Tom Dugan stars in "Tevye in New York!" (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho.)
Long before his stories were fashioned into a hit Broadway musical, the beloved Yiddish author Sholem Alecheim had much more to tell us about Tevye and his six daughters. And so, too, does the playwright and performer Tom Dugan, whose affectionate, good-natured solo show, Tevye in New York!, is on view now at The Wallis’s attractive new open-air venue.
Alecheim followed his beleaguered characters to the New World, where, like millions before and since, they hoped to prosper, free from religious oppression, in a land of opportunity, all the while struggling to maintain their Old Country traditions, values, and religion.
That’s the setup for Dugan’s nightly 90-minute spiel, the first presentation at The Wallis since the COVID lockdown began 15 months ago.
About a decade has past since Tevye, his family, and the rest of the humble villagers escaped the pogroms in Anatevka. It’s now July 4, 1914 and the affable milkman is outside his Lower East Side shop waiting for the Independence Day parade to begin. He’s also anticipating the arrival of his daughter Tzeitel, making her way through Ellis Island with her son and daughter, and her second husband, Lazar Wolf – the butcher she once scorned in Fiddler’s delightful dream sequence, so memorably staged by Jerome Robbins.
Dugan’s Tevye isn’t as imposing as so many of the great stage actors who have played him over the last half century, and his storytelling is more agreeable than striking. The laughs for the most part are gentle and sometimes fail to hit their mark. The occasional dramatic moments are more successful, however. One highlight is Dugan’s tender, mournful account of what happened to Tevye’s fourth daughter, Shprintze, who, unlike Hodel, Tzeitel, and Chava, played only a peripheral role in the musical.
Comparisons to Fiddler on the Roof may not be fair, but they are inevitable. Joe Stein hit all the right notes, wringing fresh laughs out of old jokes. (“But Rabbi, if he’s right and he’s right, how can they both be right?” To which the Rabbi replies, “You know, you’re also right!”) Stein knew his way around a laugh, having written for Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows in the early days of television.
It didn’t hurt that Fiddler also boasted a trunkful of Harnick and Bock tunes that became instant classics and that Jerome Robbins supplied fluid direction and captivating choreography. Here Michael Vale shares directing credit with Dugan. Vale also designed the spare but pleasing set.
Audiences may expect more than Tevye in New York! offers, but it’s nonetheless good to see The Wallis back in action again, and in a comfortable new outdoor performance space that comes with honking horns, revving engines, and all of the other city noises you might hear on a holiday morning in New York City’s bustling Lower East Side.
“Tevye in New York!,” The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org