The story of Tevye, the turn-of-the-century father of five girls struggling to hold on to his Jewish heritage, is familiar to many.
When the musical Fiddler on the Roof hit Broadway 49 years ago, it garnered nine Tony awards and became the longest-running Broadway show at that time, running for nearly eight years. An Academy Award-winning film followed in 1972, and its hit songs, such as Tradition, To Life and Matchmaker, Matchmaker continue to be staples among choirs.
With its familiarity, one might believe the musical adaptation of the poor, struggling Jewish milkman could offer no surprises. But the Live Oak Theatre Company plans to do just that, promising a unique, more intimate approach to the musical when the show premieres Friday at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville.
"This is not a typical performance of Fiddler," said the show's director, Vince Vanni, who also stars as Tevye. "It will be a more intense experience. ... The audience is right there. They are a part of the show."
The show will not be on a stage. Instead, it will be a "dessert theater" production, with tables in a "U" formation, allowing the actors to include the audience in their performance.
"All the action takes place smack in the middle," said Randi Olsen, artistic director.
The show is Olsen's brainchild, something she's wanted to do since Live Oak Theatre formed four years ago. And she always had Vanni in mind for the lead role.
"Vince, it goes without saying, is Tevye," Olsen said.
In fact, Olsen said she and Vanni first performed together in the Show Palace Dinner Theatre's production of Fiddler back in 1998 — Vanni as Tevye (which he also performed in 1992 at Stage West Community Playhouse) and Olsen as Tzeitel.
"(The show) means a lot to us," Olsen said. "It's where we got to know each other and become friends."
The show revolves around the residents of Anatevka, a small Jewish town in 1905 Russia. The focus is on Tevye; his wife, Golde (played by Myndee Washington), and their five daughters: Tzeitel (Nicole Natoli), Hodel (Esprit Tafelski), Chava (Monalisa Patterson), Shprintze (Holly Frendberg) and Bielke (Mary Babione). As they struggle with poverty and persecution, Tevye and Golde strive to arrange marriages for their three oldest daughters.
The production boasts a cast of 50 and includes a large number of youth performers, some as young as 5. With Vanni serving as both the lead and the director, he has had plenty of help with the directing, relying on Olsen and assistant director Keith Meccia, who plays Mendel.
"I function like a co-director and also as music director. ... And Keith is our go-to guy for just about everything," Olsen said. "We all wear a lot of hats. That's how we roll."
And along with her role as Golde, Washington is also in charge of costume design and offers creative input.
"It is proving to be a challenge," she said.
Although she has handled costumes and performed in numerous shows, she admits that this is the first time she's done it while holding down a full-time job as music teacher at Suncoast Elementary School.
"But I love it," Washington said. "Golde is so much fun."
And performing in a role as a mother of five, with a husband who is a handful, Washington — a mother of three — said she can relate.
"Golde is very strong, but does everything and is very tired," she said. "She is acerbic at times. But in the song Do You Love Me, you see a really beautiful softness and love to her."
Olsen, Vanni, Washington and Meccia all agree that working together has been a rewarding experience. They share the same vision and tend to always be on the same page.
"We collaborate very well," Vanni said. "It's the only thing that made this work."
Olsen said she is ecstatic about the entire cast.
"We have such an amazing cast and crew," she said. "If I could pick my dream cast ... this is it."
"It has been working out since the first reading," he said. "People already had their characters down. I was just . . . shocked."
And with the atypical set for the production, everyone is confident the audience will be pleased.
"There is nothing we can surprise the audience with except with the experience," Vanni said. "This is more than just a performance."
"I'm a huge fan of breaking the fourth wall," she said, "and this show does it in spades."