There’s something about the character Tevye.
The devoted father and devout Russian Jew has charmed theater audiences worldwide since the early 1960s, and it’s not hard to see why. The old dairyman, an iconic character in Fiddler on the Roof, is easy to identify with. He spends much of his time (sometimes humorously) worrying about his family, faith and finances. And despite the overwhelming adversity that his community faces in turn-of-the-century Russia, he tries to make the best decisions possible to keep his family intact.
Perhaps that’s why Gabriel Vega has portrayed the character four times over the years, most recently in the Comedy Tonight Productions rendition of Fiddler at the Joe Crosby Performing Arts Center in Oxnard.
“[Each time I perform the role] it’s just like doing it for the first time,” said Vega, who is also the producer of the play. “I can’t think of anybody who wouldn’t want to be like Tevye. I find things in his character that I try to aspire to in regular life. He’s very grounded, in touch with everyone around him and he’s funny.”
Vega’s performance as Tevye seems to be one of the many highlights of this rendition of Fiddler on the Roof, which will grace the stage at Oxnard High School through March 14. Already the production has celebrated one milestone: a successful (and glitch-free) opening weekend.
“When you get in front of the audience and they’re receptive to what you’re doing, the cast feels that energy,” said Director Scott Groeneveld, who has helmed productions at the Ventura College Opera and Musical Theater program since 2007. “You always fear the second night let down and that didn’t happen either.”
Bringing to life a historical period piece that also happens to be a beloved musical is never easy. Fiddler on the Roof has had many successful incarnations since its adaptation to Broadway in 1964 (most notably in the 1971 film version). The story of the antiquated practice of matchmaking, adolescence and politics in a small Jewish community in Russia has transcended cultural boundaries and wooed audiences worldwide with its often-bittersweet themes.
“The beauty of Fiddler is that it has universal themes,” said Vega. “Culture after culture accepts the play and it becomes beloved wherever it goes. It’s an amazing piece that way. The music, the story, the generational change, these are issues involved.”
For the 36 participants who comprise the current cast and have been rehearsing since early January, staging the play is largely a labor of love. The eclectic cast is a mix of “volunteer professionals” and local students enrolled in a mentorship program that gets them plugged into a large-scale ensemble piece. These four students work side-by-side with the actors and will get a chance to portray the characters in two of the show’s performances during the three-week run.
“I didn’t want a cookie-cutter version of Fiddler,” said Groeneveld. “I allowed the actors freedom to go through an evolution as far as bringing their own dimension to the characters and developing their own backstories.”
In some cases, these actors will be portraying one, two or even three characters in the play. Guest artist Chris Carnicelli, who has also been featured in four prior productions of Fiddler, will reprise his role as the constable and will also portray two other bit roles that showcase his work as a versatile character actor.
“I’ve played the constable three other times,” said Carnicelli, who estimated that it’s been about 15 years since he and Vega first portrayed their roles in a rendition of Fiddler. “This time I play him in a different light and make him more sympathetic.”
In theater, that subtle touch could make all the difference.
Fiddler on the Roof will be staged through March 14 on Friday and Saturday evenings, along with Sunday matinee performances. Joe Crosby Performing Arts Center, Oxnard High School, 3400 Gonzales Road. 218-9590 or www.comedytonightproductions.com.