PBT's "Fiddler on the Roof": It Takes a Village

These boots are made for fiddling

The stars are in perfect alignment for an unprecedented peek behind the scenes of the forthcoming Priscilla Beach Theatre (or “PBT”) production of the beloved musical “Fiddler on the Roof”. This critic is privileged to be able to report on its progress from the first “stumble-through” reading to the final stages of preparation of this promising production. As most theatergoers will recall, this is the story of the close-knit community that inhabits the (mythical) Russian town or shtetl of Anatevka in 1905, centered on the family of Tevye the milkman. In this incarnation, it has never been truer that it takes a village to portray the (not remotely mythical) history of the plight of a people under Czarist rule. There are some two dozen actors (all of whom are singers and dancers as well) who inhabit this Anatevka, from local towns such as Plymouth, Duxbury, Brockton and Fall River, to more distant cities like New York and Los Angeles. It becomes apparent at their first encounter that this is quite an unusual assembly, both geographically and professionally, of talent for regional theater. Not since PBT's former famed days as a true summer stock venue (with the likes of Gloria Swanson, Paul Newman, Estelle Parsons, Rob Reiner, Peter Gallagher and Jennifer Coolidge) has there been such palpable excitement.
You can sense it in the enthusiasm of the youngest members of this troupe (which ranges in age from ten to seventy-one). Oliver Trask (who'll make a fine Harold Hill in “The Music Man” someday), Dimitri Jesse (a future “Aladdin”, for sure), and Ira Colby (a future Max Bialystock in “The Producers”, if there's any justice in this world) join other graduates of PBT's children's actor training program, the two Emmas, Sundstrom and Gilmore (no doubt future Maria von Trapp and “Annie”, respectively). The enthusiasm quotient doesn't end there, though. There's just as much in evidence with the more experienced cast members, from Tevye's three eldest daughters, played by Jenny Lester (deserving of a future “Funny Girl” role), Katy Corbus (one perfect pick for the role of the Baker's Wife in “Into the Woods”) and Maya Jacobson (someday a wonderful Elphaba in “Wicked”), not to mention the multi-talented trio of Emily Suuberg (who plays more than one role, not to be disclosed here, a perfect potential Adele in “Die Fledermaus”), Emily Borges (a future fabulous Belle in "Beauty and the Beast") and Caitlin Donohue (a fine choice for a future Amneris in “Aida”). The child actors are all adorable, the women more than merely attractive. The same could be said for the male contingent, from the daughters' suitors, played by Philip Feldman (a terrific choice for Leo Frank in some future production of “Parade”), Jeremy Fassler (who'll make a memorable Eugene Tyrone in “Long Day's Journey into Night” one day), and J.J. O'Sullivan (a fine future “Hamlet”, no doubt). In this production, even the “heavies” (that is, the Cossacks) are handsome, namely Sam Patch (a great future Judas in “JC Superstar”), Bryan Rowell (made for the role of Henry in “Next to Normal”) and Charlotte Hovey (who is also dance captain, and would be great as Anita in “West Side Story”). Then there's Ben Gibson, a born dancer (and a likely future Buddy in “Elf”), Eli Hovey (a real musician who could easily assay the role of Elvis), Josh Patino (a natural for “Glengarry Glen Ross”), Kenny Donovan (another future Leo Frank in “Parade”) and the funny Adam Adrianapolous (who also could do a mean Max Bialystock...is there a theme here?) who seems to have been separated at birth from Sancho Panza of “Man of La Mancha”.

But any “Fiddler on the Roof” is, at its heart, only as good as its two main protagonists, Teyve and his wife Golde. This production is doubly blessed with the presence of two creative actors with theatrical DNA in their veins. Teyve will be played by Michael Bernardi, whose father Herschel was of course one of the most memorable interpreters of the part. He will even be wearing the same boots that his father wore in the show. And before you stretch the metaphor of filling his parental shoes, let it be said that he's his own man, with his own quite admirable instincts, a tower of strength and offstage the kindest milkman you could hope for on any route. Golde will be played by Allyn Morse, (daughter of another musical comedy giant, Robert Morse, recently of “Mad Men”), who shares her father's labile face and conveys a critical sense of maternal strength and warmth. Together, to echo Yente the matchmaker, they're a perfect match.

At the very first rehearsal, the company spent an entire three-hour evening on the first scene of the show, and well they might, as it's crucial, and arguably the finest opening number (“Tradition”) ever conceived for any Broadway musical. In the space of seven minutes, the audience learns not only how important traditions (especially religious tenets and taboos) are to Tevye and his family, but also the role of each of them within that context. His wife Golde may be old-fashioned and superstitious, but his daughters are decidedly not. The eldest seeks to marry her chosen spouse, not one chosen by the matchmaker; the next in line asks for her father's blessing, but not his permission; the next in line chooses to marry outside the faith. All three events are subtly suggested in the song with comic turns regarding matchmaking, poverty and the distance from the ruling Czar; each will have an impact on the story before its final scene. And this is accomplished by a cast that, to quote comic George Gobel, makes one feel "like a brown shoe in a room full of tuxedos".

These are one's first impressions of this fledgling company under the meticulous care of its director, Ron Fassler, who once trod these same boards in “Fiddler on the Roof” himself. And all the while, there are the ever-smiling producers sitting in the auditorium and taking all the wonder in. That would be Sandy and Bob Malone, and he too once performed in this same venue years ago in, naturally, “Fiddler on the Roof”. That's a lot of history, and one impressive village.

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