The Wild Goose Players rehearse a scene from their upcoming production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
Tricia Suriani
The Wild Goose Players rehearse a scene from their upcoming production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Bellows Falls Opera House.

A new take on an old chestnut

In Bellows Falls, a reimagined traditional favorite play shows the challenges posed by both change and staunch adherence to tradition

BELLOWS FALLS-Wild Goose Players (WGP) presents the nine-time Tony Award–winning musical Fiddler on the Roof this weekend and next at the Bellows Falls Opera House, 7 Village Square.

With some of musical theater's most cherished tunes - Sunrise, Sunset; If I Were a Rich Man; Matchmaker; To Life - Fiddler is about family and community, love and relationships. It cuts across barriers to deliver lessons of tolerance - of acceptance - in the face of prejudice and discrimination. And it shows the challenges posed by both change and staunch adherence to tradition. When do we adhere to tradition? When is it time to let go?

Tevye, the titular fiddling milkman, says in the script: "Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat... how to work... how to wear clothes." But soon he learns that just because "it's always been that way," that doesn't mean it's the best way.

Tevye's iconic character springs from a story called Tevye and his Daughters by the prolific and popular Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, whose early works told of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

The brainchild of Broadway giants Jerome Robbins and Harold Prince, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, Fiddler opened on Broadway in 1964. It had one of the most successful runs in Broadway history and has gone on to see several revivals, a 1971 film adaptation, and countless regional productions.

Fiddler is set around 1905 in the fictional Russian village of Anatevka, and centers on Tevye's adherence to tradition, his attempts to cope with the independent women in his family, and his struggles to maintain his Jewish faith and lifestyle in the face of shifting social mores, the growing anti-Semitism of tsarist Russia, and an edict that ultimately evicts the Jews from their village.

Will Goose Players' Dominic DiBenedetto directs this production while its founder and artistic director, David Stern, plays Tevye.

Stern notes that many of WGP's musicals in recent years - Chicago, Urinetown, Cabaret - have been heavy, dark, edgy. "We hadn't done a family-friendly, established piece - an 'old chestnut' - in a long time."

Though it may seem to ripple with significance given current events, "we are not making any statement," Stern asserts, "and we have no interest in doing so."

"We all have plenty of feelings about it," he says.

"For us, the show is a piece that shows a people being thrown out of their land, not an uncommon plight in world history," says Stern.

"Ironically," he adds, "it's a Jewish people being thrown off their land. It shows persecution of Jews in a way that could resonate with persecution of other people: there are a lot of ways to look at the show and what it asks us to think about."

And so, Stern continues, "our job is to do a gorgeous job revealing the story in such a way that people think about issues. It asks: How long do you want to fight? That's a question that's implicit in the show."

"It's a good show for us: there are a lot of reasons why it fits the company - a lot of strong roles for women. We always have a pretty strong LGBTQ+ presence in our community" and, in this production, such community members play several leads, he says.

"The whole piece is about changing and challenging tradition through the lens of loving relationships - loving relationships being the thing that leverages cultural change," Stern continues. "And here we are, in different loving relationships, leveraging cultural change."

Stern constructed the Fiddler set with a crew of carpenters, having designed it himself with a nod to the late, award-winning scenic designer Boris Aronson, who was born in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Stern also acknowledges the work of Russian-French-Jewish artist Marc Chagall, whose 1913 painting The Fiddler appears on the poster for the show, and evokes his homeland in Vitebsk, Belarus. "The Chabad Hasidim of Chagall's childhood," according to, "believed it possible to achieve communion with God through music and dance, and the fiddler was a vital presence in ceremonies and festivals."

Of his design, which is rich in color, texture, symbol, and allusion, Stern adds: "I'm not a big proscenium guy," meaning he likes to break through boundaries of traditional scene design.

Thus, he's extended the apron of the Opera House stage with the blessing of management.

"They are very kind to us," he says. " They still do movies here," he explains, and so as long as the screen can be lowered, Stern has free rein.

Stern has worked paths and circles and many entrances from unexpected places into his design, "so there's an outer circle and an inner and a lot of ways to get in and out: I wanted to surprise people and keep it alive and not have too many set changes to slow us down." And he wanted to use Tevye's cart to its fullest potential, not only as a milk-delivery vehicle but as a symbol of the play's essential themes.

WGP is an itinerant company that has performed in a variety of venues, from Main Street Arts in Saxtons River to Next Stage Arts in Putney. Recently, the actors have gotten a certificate of occupancy for a small, black box–style, 40-seat rehearsal and performance space on the Square in Bellows Falls.

(8)The company has acted as an incubator for playwrights for the past few years, and year-long monthly open readings have produced a new play each year.

This year's is Year One by Erik Gernand, to be directed by the playwright. The next big musical will be George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along, which will close its smash revival on Broadway in July.

Reflecting on the productive path WGP has trod, Stern says, "I manage now to make a living doing what I love to do. This is my job."

At 63, though, he has an eye toward succession planning, and slowly fading from leadership. "I don't need to [do it all]: marketing, recycling, storage, garbage, publicity, fundraising, grant writing" - on top of directing, designing, and envisioning, he says.

And so it fits that DiBenedetto is directing this production, though that wasn't part of a master plan.

"A few years ago, David talked about others taking on directing, and I was one," DiBenedetto says, adding, "It was always a plan."

He has been in theater for 25 years, and actively involved in directing youth theater for the past 10. "So I have experience and was interested, and we figured we'll wait for the right show."

But not long into the Fiddler production process, the man who was cast as Tevye had to leave the show; Stern stepped into the lead, which left the director role open.

"We'd said we'd start with my directing something small," which Fiddler hardly is - it has an acting ensemble of 60 and a full company of over 100, including backstage, front-of-house, designers, and set builders.

Still, he says, "This was the opportunity and I took it. It's been exciting and it felt right. It's always a joy to work with Wild Goose - it's a great place to be. That speaks a lot to the direction [of] the company and to everyone who's part of the production. It's synergy. It's been joyful."

DiBenedetto has enjoyed the change of pace from youth theater, and is grateful to have so many other people involved.

"I'm so used to productions where I work with one or two others to get everything done. But there are so many here happy to help in so many different ways. I've learned a lot about managing input and staying 100 feet above the whole production to see it runs smoothly."

In leading roles, in addition to Stern, are: Ira Richardson, Arabella Garrison, Kristina Meima, Dennis Scott, Shayna Bredbeck, David Naughton, Morganna Ekkens, Casey Volikas, Natalia Chiume, Mark Tullgren, Deven Wicker, Ron Bos-Lun, Gavy Kessler, Eben Watson, Ira Wilner, Tim Jones, Ezra Leonard, Libby McCawley, Mary Margret Jones, Lea Kablik, Marilyn Tullgren, and Nate Bennet.

Lighting was designed by Jerry Stockman; costumes by Sandy Klein. Ashley Hensel-Browning choreographed and Carol Cronce directs a 10-member pit band.

Stern adds: "I love it. To me it's amazing that that many people want to give up this much time and make something."

While a few key roles - music director, choreographer, lighting designer, and pit band members - receive stipends of amounts that vary from acceptable to barely covering gas, the performers and all supporting company members, from backstage to front-of-house, are volunteers.

In addition, Stern says, Wild Goose has benefited from a number of grants.

Fiddler on the Roof runs Fridays through Sundays, April 5 to 7 and 11 to 13 at the Bellows Falls Opera House, with tiered ticket prices from $10 to $40. Visit for more information.

This Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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