St. Helena High School drama students are undertaking one of their biggest challenges yet: transporting audiences – and themselves — to a sleepy little Russian village where a poor milkman clings to the religious and cultural traditions that have given his life meaning.
“Fiddler on the Roof,” which finds eternally resonant themes in a vanished time and place, is the spring musical opening Friday, March 9, at the St. Helena Performing Arts Center.
St. Helena Drama’s recent shows have been set in easily relatable times and places: the modern-day London of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and the Roaring Twenties New York City of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
“Fiddler on the Roof,” set in a Jewish shtetl in czarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century, is another story.
Frank Lenney plays the main character Tevye, a milkman whose core values are challenged by forces both outside his village and within his own family.
“Once you get to know the show and the characters, you start to see a lot of parallels to our modern day — anti-Semitism, people being discriminated against, and people telling them they can’t do this or that,” Lenney said. “It’s more modern than some people would like to think.”
He said the story has sad and happy parts, but is ultimately uplifting.
“A lot of people will come here because, hey, ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ it’s a good show,” he said. “But I want people to leave saying ‘Wow, that was really powerful.’”
Lenney said members of the local Jewish community have helped the cast and crew get a feel for the story’s Jewish elements. Vintner Judd Finkelstein, an alumnus of the St. Helena High School drama program, hosted a traditional Shabbat ceremony at the Performing Arts Center in February, offering a preview of the show and a primer on the Jewish customs that are central to the story.
That research “has helped us understand what certain traditions and symbols mean,” Lenney said. “It’s helped us build our characters to be more developed.”
The first act of “Fiddler” features a Shabbat prayer in the home of Tevye, his wife Golde (Mia Pelosi), and their five daughters, played by Ileene Christianson-Torres, Hailey Peterson, Sofia Osborne, Josie Goldfarb and Liesl Wolf-Heinemann. The scene, creatively staged in a way that draws the audience into the ceremony, was among those that played out during a 30-minute press preview on Monday.
Other highlights included “Tradition,” the opening ensemble dance number that introduces the characters and the customs that bind them together, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” a song in which three of Tevye’s daughters explore the theme of arranged marriages, and “If I Were A Rich Man,” with Tevye lamenting his poverty and fantasizing about a life of wealth and comfort.
“Fiddler” is director Patti Coyle’s 19th production with St. Helena Drama and her ninth collaboration with musical director Craig Bond, who accompanied the cast on piano for Monday’s preview. The full performances will feature an orchestra with members of the Saint Helena Community Band.
The show is special to Coyle because she played Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, in her last high school production.
“Now it’s a dream come true to direct it,” she said.
Spunky and rebellious
The show also has personal significance for Peterson, who plays Tevye’s second-oldest daughter, Hodel. She said that the sadness her character feels at one point in the show parallels – although in a far more dramatic way – her own sadness in taking part in her last show as a high school senior.
“My character is spunky. She’s very rebellious and goes against the traditions of her town,” Peterson said, adding that the role is different from the innocent “ingenues” she’s played in the past.
But for all her independence, Hodel values her family and is very close to her four sisters. She finds those bonds tested when the young scholar Perchik (Doug Collins) comes to town and starts sharing his radically non-traditional ideas.
The themes of “Fiddler” are different from the other shows Peterson has been involved in, but her interest in history has helped her adapt to the unfamiliar culture and customs. “Learning about the religion has also been really interesting,” she said.
First onstage role
The show also features Dawson Landis as Nachum the beggar in his first onstage role in a St. Helena Drama production. It’s a comedic part with some important lines at the end of the play.
“I didn’t want a big role for my first role,” Landis said. “My favorite part has been learning about the Jewish culture. That and moving sets and just hanging with my friends too.”
Landis worked on the crew for “Curious Incident,” which he said was easier to relate to culturally. But he’s enjoyed learning about the much different world of “Fiddler.”
“I enjoy history, so it’s pretty easy to imagine myself as this kind of character,” he said. “The hardest thing – and I think this goes for everybody – is to not freak out on stage or forget your lines.”
Lenney has been participating in St. Helena Drama since “Once Upon a Mattress” in 2015, but Tevye is his first lead role.
“In the past I’ve had maybe one or two lines, if that,” he said. “Now I have pages upon pages of lines to learn, and it’s just excruciating. There have been multiple days where I’ve stayed up with someone until like 10 at night just going over lines, trying to get them down. It’s a tough job but it’s definitely worth the work.”
Aside from having a lot of lines, the role of Tevye presents other challenges, like “trying to get into the mindset of someone who is being discriminated against,” Lenney said.
His favorite scenes are the ones where time freezes and Tevye monologues about his thoughts, giving the audience a sense of his inner self. The celebratory dance number “L’Chaim (To Life)” is another highlight, Lenney said.
At stage left
In keeping with most of St. Helena Drama’s other shows, the crew is also made up of students. Anais Laly has been participating in Coyle’s productions going back to “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in 2016, serving as stagehand, costume designer and now assistant stage manager.
From her post at stage left, Laly said she’s the “eyes and ears” for the crew members positioned in the control room. She communicates with them through a radio, helping coordinate set changes and sound and lighting cues. During rehearsals she helped the cast with “blocking,” or the positioning of each actor on the stage, and helped them memorize their lines, word for word.
“I’m a very organized person, so this is a really fun experience,” Laly said. “I lay out in my head how things are supposed to go, we get it on paper and explain it to the cast so they’re clear on what they have to do. It’s fun to work on that structure backstage and then see it come alive onstage.”