NEW YORK – Staś Kmieć remembers watching the film version of “Fiddler on the Roof” when he was a kid. The 1971 Academy Academy Award-winning film made a big impression on Kmieć, who grew up in Haverhill in a Polish Catholic family.
“I was absolutely transformed,” he recalled decades later. It struck a familiar chord about his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland and left him wanting to know more about the small Polish villages of his extended family.
Already a talented performer from a young age, Kmieć channeled an inner Tevye, singing tunes from “Fiddler” for a local Hadassah group. He also grew up singing along with the folk recordings of Theodore Bikel.
Decades later, Lauren Jeanne Thomas grew up in a musical family in a small town outside Philadelphia. From her childhood, she was attracted to playing an array of instruments, from violin and flute, to piano. But she was also drawn to acting and musicals. “I grew up watching the “Fiddler” movie,” she recalled in a recent phone conversation from New York.
Her love of the stage brought her to Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, where, in 2013, she earned her BFA.
Through their separate, unlikely creative journeys – and in unimagined ways – the two theater world performers with ties to Boston are now part of The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish – a surprising runaway hit in New York, where critics and audiences have fallen hard for the show.
Directed by theater and film world luminary Joel Grey, the current production is scheduled to run through Sept. 1, at New York’s Stage 42.
Based on the stories of Sholem Alechiem, the master of Yiddish storytelling and writing, the Tony Award-winning theatrical production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” first opened on Broadway in 1964, with a book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
Kmieć, who is responsible for the Yiddish Theater production’s musical staging and new choreography, is a Tufts University alum whose extensive dancing and performing credits include the Boston Ballet, touring with Rudolph Nuryev, and two “Fiddler” tours with Theodore Bikel, who became a friend.
With an advanced degree in ethnomusicology and folk culture from the University of Marie Curie-Sklodowsk in Lublin, Poland, Kmieć brings an unparalleled expertise to the production.
The 28-year-old Thomas, who performed in the touring production of “Once,” landed the singular role of the fiddler in this Yiddish production.
Call the show’s surprise success a “who knew?” phenomenon that brings the hugely popular musical from stage and screen full circle to its Yiddish roots. The Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman dates to 1965 and his Yiddish version had its world debut that year in Israel.
The NYTF production of “Fiddler Afn Dakh,” its Yiddish title, opened for a limited run last July at the
Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, and to the delight and surprise of its producers and cast, it was extended four times.
In February, it moved uptown, to Stage 42, just blocks from Times Square.
The new production shines with a cast that includes seasoned Broadway-acclaimed performers Steven Skybell (Tevye) and Jackie Hoffman (Yente).
English and Russian translations are projected on cloth panels that hang on either side of the stage.
The first preview performance, on Monday, Feb. 11, dazzled with vitality, pathos and pitch-perfect performances. Skybell delivered an outstanding, memorable and unique Tevye, who engaged his audience with warmth, reflection, humor, and depth of character.
The idea to produce the Yiddish version of “Fiddler” has long been on the wish list of the Folksbeine Theater, said Matthew (Motl) Didner, associate director of the theater company and associate producer of the play.
“There is no other piece of musical theater that so well incorporates the Yiddish element of the underlying Sholom Aleichem stories,” Didner told the Journal in a phone conversation. It is a “perfectly packed musical, with humor, romance, pathos, everything that makes for a hit.”
Count Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst among those who did not expect to be smitten.
“The music is great,” he said about the original, but, for Lansky, the “Fiddler” of the 1960s was not a completely true representation of the world of Sholom Aleichem’s writing.
This “Fiddler,” in Yiddish?
“I did love it,” Lansky said enthusiastically. “The Yiddish made it kosher again. It had a Jewish depth that was missing before.” The translation was “really rich and nuanced and textured.”
Didner and Lansky both believe there is a growing audience for Yiddish theater.
When “Fiddler” first opened, 55 years ago, the idea was to strike a universal, less specific tone for a broader appeal, Didner observed.
Today, the “world is ready for more authentic experiences,” and audiences embrace all things multicultural, Didner said.
Lansky witnessed this firsthand, when his own 25-year-old daughter and the many other young people in the audience considered the show “cool.”
The Folksbeine theater could not have anticipated the show’s appeal and success, Didner said.
“This is unbelievable for us.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish, National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine, at New York’s Stage 42, through September 1. For more information, visit nytf.org.