When the fifth and most recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” hit the stage in 2015, it pointedly broke with tradition.
Though still telling the tale of Tevye, a poor milkman in Imperial Russia, the show opened and closed with a modern framing device: Tevye wearing a modern red parka and holding a weathered sign reading “Anatevka,” the fictional town where the musical takes place. At the time, the Syrian refugee crisis was in full swing; today, “Fiddler” speaks all too well to the ongoing refugee crisis, the largest in Europe since World War II and its aftermath.
The musical’s resonance with current events isn’t lost on actor Solomon Reynolds. Reached by phone last week from his tour stop in Birmingham, Alabama, Reynolds notes the similarities between the show and the ongoing crisis, including that “Fiddler” takes place in the Pale of Settlement, the western region of the Russian Empire that included much of modern-day Ukraine.
“It seems like no matter where we are in history, we will always have the stories of refugees with us, and unfortunately [‘Fiddler’] will always be relevant,” says Reynolds, who plays Perchik in the traveling Broadway tour visiting the Altria Theater this week.
Taking place circa 1905, “Fiddler” centers on Tevye, a man dedicated to upholding his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as they are challenged by outside influences. Tevye tries to cope and rationalize the actions of his three oldest daughters as they attempt to marry for love instead of following tradition. Meanwhile, violence by the Russians against the Jewish population escalates until the tsar finally evicts Tevye and his family from their village.
The original 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler” was a mega-hit, winning nine Tony awards and becoming the longest-running Broadway musical up until that point. With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, a book by Joseph Stein and original direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, “Fiddler” remains one of the most popular shows in the Broadway canon.
For Reynolds, who trained as an opera singer, “Fiddler” has served as his introduction to performing in Broadway-caliber musicals. After completing his graduate degree at Indiana University last spring, Reynolds was cast in the tour of “Fiddler” in August.
“I don’t have a musical theater background,” Reynolds explains. “A lot of my castmates are musical theater fanatics, so they’ll make references or sing songs, and it goes completely over my head.”
Though a newbie to the world of musical theater, Reynolds says the appeal of “Fiddler” is universal.
“‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is this timeless tale of tradition and breaking tradition, and this cyclical pattern of refugees around the world,” he says. “The music is timeless. Even if you haven’t seen the show, you know the song [‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’] or ‘If I Were a Rich Man.’ Gwen Stefani covered it.”
Perchik, Reynolds’ character, is a young Bolshevik who attended school in Kyiv wants to challenge the status quo.
“He went to university and has come back looking for a job, or looking for food, or maybe just to incite the revolutionary spirit in different villages in Ukraine and Russia,” Reynolds says. “He has a fierce sense of justice, and of fighting for the underdog. [He’s] self-sabotaging or self-sacrificing, in a way. He will always stand up for what he perceives is right.”
Perchik is given room and board by Tevye in exchange for educating his daughters. When Hodel, Tevye’s second-oldest daughter, mocks Perchik for his Marxist interpretation of a Biblical story, Perchik criticizes Hodel’s embrace of old Jewish traditions. The duo then dance, challenging the tradition that men and women shouldn’t dance together, and begin falling in love.
Noting that “Fiddler” was based on a series of stories from more than a hundred years ago by Yiddish author and playwright Sholem Aleichem, Reynolds says the musical still speaks to today.
“It’s a story that you think, going into it, [will] be a comedy, and by the end of it you’re blown away. You’re hit by semi-truck, just with how sad it is,” Reynolds says. “It’s just frighteningly relevant. The same thing is still going on in the same place. We can’t be removed from the violence that’s going on in the world.”
Broadway in Richmond’s “Fiddler on the Roof” plays April 5-10 at the Altria Theater, 6 N. Laurel St., 23220. For more information, visit broadwayinrichmond.com or call (804) 592-3368.