WVLO’s ‘Fiddler’ a timeless story of culture, tradition

The simple dairyman Tevye  (Doug Brook) and his wife Golde (Rachel Michelberg) deal with an ever-changing world in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Saratoga's West Valley Light Opera through Dec. 7th. (Photo by Edmond Kwong)

The simple dairyman Tevye (Doug Brook) and his wife Golde (Rachel Michelberg) deal with an ever-changing world in “Fiddler on the Roof” at Saratoga’s West Valley Light Opera through Dec. 7th. (Photo by Edmond Kwong)

The God-loving dairyman Tevye lives a life of contradictions. He wants a son, but has five daughters. He wants wealth, yet he is poor. And he wants to read the books of God for seven hours a day, but delivering milk takes up the bulk of his time.

The stories of Sholem Alecheim and his noble hero Tevye, first introduced to Yiddish readers in 1894, went on to commercial success in the musical theatre, with composing duo Sheldon Bock and Jerry Harnick debuting “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in 1964. It went on to win nine out of ten Tony Awards, and became a popular film in 1971.

Saratoga’s West Valley Light Opera is the latest company to tackle the timeless story of family, faith and traditions, opening on Friday, Nov. 9th.

Director Becky Brownson has an extensive history with the musical, having played the role of middle daughter Hodel in the mid-1980’s. She also saw a production with one of the great Tevye’s, Theodore Bikel in New York City.

While Brownson’s initial desires were to perform in WVLO’s production, the opportunity to direct the piece presented itself, and was extremely appealing. Brownson’s main focus in her direction has been to create a strong sense of community through the ensemble in the incredibly structured world of Anatevka, the town in Tsarist Russia in the year 1905, where the action takes place.

“I think one of the things I’m trying to do when I delved into history is to figure out what these people’s lives were like,” said Brownson. “I tried to bring that out in my choices as director, and the ensemble has taken this idea of community and run with it, building relationships with each other.”

It is the opening number that establishes what is expected of each member of this community. In the song “Tradition,” Tevye clearly shares what makes this society tick. This is what the mothers do. This is what the sons do. The daughters do this. The wives do that. And all of it is necessary to keep the society balanced.

This is where the tension of the play lies. As societies change, traditions begin to fall.  Young children grow into young adults and fall in love all by themselves. Arranged marriages give way to organic discovery of love.

There is no greater example of this in the play than through the character of Yente, the matchmaker. She is a meddling busybody, an elderly woman who gathers up information on people in hopes of finding the perfect (or not so perfect) life partnerships, all for a fee.

Leslie Newport, who plays the feisty matchmaker, was taken back by the sheer girth of the lines that Yente has. And what has captured Newport’s imagination is Yente’s sheer zest for life, which gives her so much to draw from in her interpretation.

“She feels she’s very important, a part of determining the future of the village,” said Newport. “The families she helps create will become the village, so it is a very important job to make the right matches for people.”

“Fiddler” is a show that people love for so many different reasons. It not only provides lovely insight into Jewish traditions, it also examines how each generation deals with its own evolution, moving into the next wave of new societal norms. And with wonderful standards such as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” Brownson is very clear on what “Fiddler” audiences expect.

“When I take on a project, I ask how can I give this my own spin and make it different,” said Brownson. “People want to see the ‘Fiddler’ they’ve always seen, and I can’t always get creative, which at times can be very frustrating.”

Still, Brownson has found ways to bring her own freshness to the script. She has found little touches that accentuate Judaism and has had a lot of fun staging the broad, comic number “Tevye’s Dream.”

Despite all of the subplots that lie within the pages of the show, Brownson still believes the show’s heart has everything to do with Tevye’s desires to maintain balance in an ever-changing world.

“Tevye’s culture uses tradition to keep his balance, which is the metaphor of ‘Fiddler,’” said Brownson. “The fiddler applies to all of us.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

West Valley Light Opera presents “Fiddler on the Roof”
Music By Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Joseph Stein
Nov. 9th – Dec. 7th
The Saratoga Civic Theatre
13777 Fruitvale Ave, Saratoga CA 95070
Tickets range from $20 – $31
For more information or tickets, call (408) 268-3777 or visit www.wvlo.org

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