By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: October 14, 2005
Here are instructions for transforming yourself into a Jewish matriarch in provincial Russia in 1905, inspired by Rosie O'Donnell's performance in "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Minskoff Theater. Feel free to try this at home.
1. Plant yourself on the floor as if you were an oak.
2. Puff out your chest.
3. Place the palm of your left hand on the back of your left hip.And, voilà!, you have instant Golde, the wife of Tevye, the philosopher-milkman in the musical adaptation of Sholom Aleichem's stories of shtetl life in the twilight of imperial Russia. Just strike that commanding maternal pose and all other essential elements of character will soon arrive naturally. It might help if you prayed a little, too.That would seem to be Ms. O'Donnell's approach to a role previously played by Randy Graff and Andrea Martin in David Leveaux's elegant but empty revival of this much-loved show by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Alas, a pose and a prayer prove to be not quite enough to allow Ms. O'Donnell - the comedian, television personality, theatrical producer, sometime actress and confessional blogger - to make us believe that she is someone other than who she so famously is.
Her accent trots the globe, through countries real and imagined. It is variously Irish, Yiddish, Long Island-ish and, for big dramatic moments, crisp and round in the style of introduction-to-theater students.
Her relationship with the notes and keys of a song is similarly fluid.In the scene where Tevye (Harvey Fierstein) frightens his wife by describing an ominous dream, Ms. O'Donnell puts her hands to her pinchable cheeks and emanates a series of high-pitched o's, bringing to mind a distressed dolphin. Whether center stage or on the sidelines, she can be relied upon to react with italicized gestures and facial expressions to what everyone else is saying.Ms. O'Donnell, who has previously appeared on Broadway as a tough teenager in "Grease" and the Cat in the Hat in "Seussical," executes all this with a cheerful confidence that is unfortunately not infectious. A stalwart promoter of Broadway when she was a television talk show host, Ms. O'Donnell does seem to be enjoying herself.But as is usual with her stage performances, she suggests a jill-of-all-trades who thought she might as well try her hand at acting, too. The overall impression brings to mind what might happen if the lead in a high school production fell ill and the director turned to the most popular and reliable girl in the senior class (who is already the captain of the field hockey team, the debating society and the pep club) to fill in.It would be nice to report that Ms. O'Donnell's cheerleading persona brings new energy to this production. But the show's effectiveness relies so much on full emotional conviction by its cast and audience that a kibitzing performance like this one creates only distance.So it is up to Mr. Fierstein, the famously throaty actor (and multiple Tony winner) who took over the starring role from Alfred Molina nine months ago, to fill the vacuum. He does this by stepping up the vocal mannerisms (even more than when I last saw him), embellishing every third or fourth syllable, spoken or sung, with ornamental slides and runs, often at the expense of intelligibility. Not since Mercedes McCambridge dubbed the part of the demon in "The Exorcist" has there been such a vocally baroque performance.A warning to those of delicate hearing: the show is now so overmiked that when Mr. Fierstein exercises his nasal tones, your eardrums go into shock. When Ms. O'Donnell tries to match him in stridency in the duet "Do You Love Me?," you may find yourself longing for a more aurally soothing environment, like the runway of a busy airport.