BRATTLEBORO — This year’s musical at Brattleboro Union High School, the 50th to be staged there, is “Fiddler on the Roof,” opening on Feb. 16, at 7 p.m.
With the book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Brock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, it tells the story of Tevye, a poor dairyman, who lives with his wife Golde and their five daughters in the small Jewish village of Anatevka, in czarist Russia, in 1905. It is based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem.
Life in the shtetl has been the same for generations, sustained by the traditions that are its foundation. Now that his three oldest daughters are of marriageable age, Tevye wants to find good husbands for them, so he consults the matchmaker, as is the custom. The young women, however, while outwardly obeying their parents, have strong ideas of their own. Tevye’s familial struggles and joys mirror in microcosm the larger cultural shifts percolating in society.
In a recent interview, some of the students participating in the production talked about the characters they portray and the experience of working on the show.
Abby Sharff plays Tzeitel, the eldest daughter, who is the first to rebel.
“Tevye has already approved her marriage to Lazar Wolf, the town’s butcher, but she, herself, has promised to marry Motel, the poor tailor,” Sharff said. “In real life, I’m the youngest daughter, so I’ve based my character on how my older sister was to me.”
Lila Armour-Jones, who has acted at New England Youth Theatre, portrays Hodel, the second oldest daughter.
“This is my biggest role so far,” Armour-Jones said. “Hodel is very witty. She is not afraid to talk back to people. She understands some of the values her father has, that he wants her to marry a learned Jewish man who will take care of her, love her and protect her. She doesn’t wait for the matchmaker, though. She finds her own match: Perchik, the student radical.”
Isabella May plays Chava, the third oldest daughter, whom May describes as the bookworm of the family.
“She doesn’t say much,” May said. “She doesn’t talk unless spoken to. Her ‘lines’ are in her reactions. She carries the second act. The most rebellious of the three, she falls in love with Fyedka, a Russian soldier and a non-Jew. They meet through their love of books.”
Auzan Arvian, an exchange student from Indonesia, plays Motel.
“Back home, we don’t have shows or plays in high school,” he said. “I’m very excited — I just wanted to try this acting, and I enjoy it so much.”
He describes Motel as loving Tzeitel deeply and wanting to marry her, but being poor and having nothing, he is afraid to ask Tevye for her hand.
Genny Schneski plays Golde, Tevye’s wife and mother of their daughters.
“She is the empress,” Schneski said. “Tevye is supposed to be in charge, but it’s really Golde who runs things. They’ve been married 25 years. They met on their wedding day. She is not afraid to speak her mind to anyone. With her, it’s work-work-work. She loves all her daughters and is also fed up with them. She is very gruff.
“I’m not very gruff in person,” Schneski continued, “although I’m not afraid to speak my mind. (In building Golde’s character) I use my experience with my sister, who is two years younger, to fuel my gruffness with my daughters.”
Griffin Woodruff portrays Tevye.
“He is definitely stubborn,” Woodruff said. “He believes he would do anything for his daughters. He looks for the best in people, and he tries to find the silver lining. He holds a close connection to his G_d and talks to G_d about what’s happening and how it’s all G_d’s fault. Tevye is a partially learned man, which is why he wants his daughters to marry learned men.” (Editor’s note: The author is not writing out the name of the higher power in accordance with Jewish custom.)
John Mosher plays Lazar Wolf, the butcher, whose wife died several years ago.
“He’s more on the wealthy side,” Mosher said, “and he’s very lonely. His goals are simple. He knows what he wants, but the ways he tries to get it are not the best ways.”
Mosher noted that he has been acting since he was in sixth grade.
“I’ve been in tons of musicals,” he said. “This is my second play here at BUHS. It’s significantly more fun to play an older character.”
Karine Hayrapetyan portrays Yente, the matchmaker, and Grandma Tzeitel, a ghost figure. This is Hayrapetyan’s first time acting.
“Yente is a lot of fun to play,” she said. “She’s gossipy and charismatic and knows what everybody else wants.”
Luke Horn, a student at Brattleboro Area Middle School, brings the character of Fyedka, the Russian soldier, to life.
“He has an ego, and he’s confident,” Horn said. “He has a lot of pride. Whenever he goes by the bookshop, he sees Chava there. Although it is forbidden, he insists on giving her a book. His character proves that people are not as different as they may seem.”
Zoe Peterson, also a student at BAMS, plays both a Russian priest and Shaindel, who is Motel’s mother.
“She is quite strong,” Peterson said. “She’s a widow and poor, so she has been both providing for and taking care of her family for a while. I’m having to learn how to be the mom of a 17-year-old, so I’m incorporating what I see from my parents.”
Peterson said she has been acting since she was quite little and is the youngest person in the cast. This is her second play at BUHS.
Leo Storm portrays several characters: a Russian, the beggar Nachum, and one of the bottle dancers. He said his training in gymnastics has helped with the bottle dance.
“It’s really fun,” he said, “and a bit challenging. I have to keep my balance while remembering the different moves.”
Remy Flood is co-stage manager with Charlie Forthofer. As stage manager, Flood writes down the blocking (the position and movement of the actors on the stage, where they enter and exit, etc.), provides cues from the script when actors are rehearsing their lines, and spikes the furniture (makes sure that set pieces, furniture and other items are in correct position on the stage).
“It’s my first time doing this,” Flood said, “and it’s been really cool to watch everything come together.”
Cyrus Smith, a junior at BUHS, is the fight captain for the show, which means he is responsible for ensuring that the fight choreography established by the fight choreographer (C. R. Rose) happens in a safe way. Smith also works on costumes, props, painting of sets, and tech rehearsals.
“I’ve been involved in every show so far,” he said. “I love theater. It works all the different parts of my brain. I would live in the theater if I could. I have conversations with people I would never have expected to have. Theater gives you social experiences better than anything I’ve ever tried. All the things you learn in theater you can apply to the rest of the world.”
“Fiddler” is the fifth show, and third musical, Rebekah Kersten, BUHS teacher of English and theater, has directed. A BUHS graduate herself, class of ’00, Kersten joined the BUHS faculty for the 2019-2020 school year.
“This show is special for several reasons,” she said. “It’s the 50th musical on the BUHS stage; it’s the first show for which Julie Ackerman-Hovis is serving as the vocal director; and, perhaps biggest of all, this will be Steve Rice’s last show with us, as he is retiring at the end of this school year.”
In order to address the concerns of some students that having non-Jewish actors portray Jewish characters was cultural appropriation, Kersten approached two local rabbis to ask their thoughts on the question and to ask for their help in portraying the characters, ceremonies, customs and traditions as accurately as possible on stage.
Kersten noted that since “Fiddler” first opened on Broadway in September 1964, there has been a performance of the musical somewhere in the world every day for nearly 60 years.
“There’s a universality to ‘Fiddler’ that appeals to people in different cultures all over the world,” she said. “It’s a show about how one handles the collision of new, progressive ideas with honored, age-old, proven traditions. There’s sadness, but there’s joy and humor in it, too.”
“Especially for Jewish people,” May added. “Our culture has been taken away, and we’ve been persecuted a lot. This whole show is magical. So many people have done these songs before us.”
Armour-Jones agreed, saying, “There are similarities between this show and my own family background. (All) people see something of themselves on stage.”
Performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” will take place on Feb. 16 at 7 p.m., Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. in the BUHS auditorium. Tickets for all performances are $10 for general admission and $6 for seniors. All tickets will be available at the box office before the performances.
For more information, call 802-451-3511 or visit the website buhs.wsesdvt.org .