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Review: In ‘Tevye in New York!’ at the Wallis, ‘Fiddler’ fiddles once again

Tom Dugan stars in "Tevye in New York!."
Tom Dugan stars as the title character in the world premiere of “Tevye in New York!” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
(Lawrence K. Ho

)

Theater has awakened from its enforced dormancy at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, though it’s still rubbing sleep out of its eyes.

On Saturday, “Tevye in New York!” had its world premiere in the Wallis’ pop-up outdoor terrace performance space in the rackety heart of Beverly Hills. The evening air was mild, and the one-man-show, based on the poor yet persevering paterfamilias immortalized in “Fiddler on the Roof,” was every bit as mellow.

Openings don’t come much softer than this. The play, written and performed by Tom Dugan, picks up the story of Tevye the dairyman, who at the end of “Fiddler” was in flight from a pogrom and heading to America with much of his family. He’s made it to New York, though under different circumstances from the musical, and he’s still full of vignettes, mostly about the old country.

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When Tevye reflects on his hardships, he is speaking as much to us, the audience, as to his God, with whom he continues to enjoy an informal one-way conversation. Suffering, which hasn’t relented for him in the New World, compels him to draw lessons from his Jewish faith and hard-won knowledge of human nature. But mostly he talks so that he doesn’t succumb to the despair of silence.

Dugan, who relies on those stories in Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” that didn’t make it into “Fiddler,” sets up a no-nonsense frame. It’s July 4, 1914, and Tevye is peddling ice cream from his cart, which is parked on a busy corner of the Lower East Side.

The theme of this year’s Independence Day parade is immigrants, and Tevye, who has just been made a citizen, feels moved to celebrate in the true American way by making a few dollars. Unfortunately — the word could be in permanent bubble over Tevye’s head — a mishap with the key to the frozen compartment of his cart has left him with nothing to sell but pickles.

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The comedy of Dugan’s writing and delivery aren’t all that effectual. Audiences, out of practice with being an audience, aren’t as quick to respond to middling jokes as they were before the pandemic. The courtesy laughs aren’t as automatic, and in the early going, Tevye’s tepid laugh lines were met with noticeable nonreactions from the opening night audience.

The mirth picks up as the storytelling kicks into gear, thanks to Aleichem’s brisk narrative voice and gift for tragicomedy. Life, as reported by Tevye, is a coin that’s forever being flipped — tails you laugh, heads you weep. The spell that’s cast derives from the balance Aleichem achieves between amusement and sympathy. Dugan, whose additions and arrangements are as basic as they come, is the beneficiary of this genius.

The show, directed by Michael Vale and Dugan, seems like something that could have been devised by a marketing department. (Dugan’s “Jackie Unveiled,” a solo show about First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy starring Saffron Burrows, left a similar impression.) Trading on a beloved character of Broadway, “Tevye in New York!” appeals to audience nostalgia with minimal fuss. The barebones and rather unimaginative set by Vale seems built to be recycled. Even the exclamation point in the title, a tactic sometimes employed by Aleichem for more obviously exclamatory purposes, has the ring of a press release.

But I found my resistances melting away by the sorrowful tale of Tevye’s daughter Shprintze, whose death was perhaps too tragic to be included in “Fiddler on the Roof.” How soothing it is to hear even an unhappy story when it is movingly rendered.

Dugan rummages through Aleichem’s catalog to flesh out the evening. A magical fable about how Tevye originally got into the milk business back in Anatevka is counterpoised by a darker yarn that culminates in the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York.

All the while, Tevye is waiting for the pay phone to ring with an update on his daughter Tzeitl, who has just arrived on Ellis Island with her son and new husband. Motel the tailor, I was grieved to learn, didn’t survive long enough to fulfill my hope that he might one day move to New York and become a famous fashion designer. Another familiar character from “Fiddler,” however, makes a return in a narrative the strains to find suspense.

Plans are afoot for the family to finally make good on the American dream. But, as always, big obstacles threaten future happiness. History never stops for Tevye, yet he keeps moving forward. And that is why “Tevye in New York!” is agreeable company despite its many shortcomings.

‘Tevye in New York!’

Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Ends July 25.

Tickets: $75

Info: (310) 746-4000 or www.TheWallis.org/Tevye

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (with no intermission)


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