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With age comes insight into 'Fiddler' character

Courtesy photo
Robert Summers II plays Tevye in the national tour of "Fiddler on the Roof," coming to the Clay Center April 4. He first played the role when he was 23 and says he understands it more now that he's got life experience under his belt.

WANT TO GO?

"Fiddler on the Roof"

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 4

WHERE: Clay Center

TICKETS: $37 and $61

INFO: 304-561-3570 or www.theclaycenter.org CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Robert Summers II plays Tevye in the national tour of "Fiddler on the Roof," coming to the Clay Center April 4. He first played the role when he was 23 and says he understands it more now that he's got life experience under his belt. There are few musicals with the longevity of "Fiddler on the Roof." First brought to the stage in 1964, the musical story of Tevye and his family set in the years just before the Russian Revolution ran on Broadway for 10 years and is still one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history.

It's also become a popular show for community and school theaters to perform because it's so well loved. That's in addition to international productions and national tours, like the one coming to the Clay Center April 4 in a Broadway in Charleston show.

Robert Summers II, who plays Tevye in the touring production of "Fiddler on the Roof," which comes to the Clay Center April 4 as part of Broadway in Charleston said the show endures because it resonates with just about everyone.

"The show is all about tradition and breaking from tradition," he said.

In one way or another, the struggle of the poor Jewish milkman and father to find his equilibrium when the traditions of his people are challenged is the story of most of us.

"I don't care who you are, it resonates. "It doesn't matter whether you're Jewish, Christian, Muslim or whatever. The play deals with family. Just about everyone has a family, and every family has its own set of traditions."

In Tevye's case, he struggles to balance his faith with the actions of his daughters, which push against the way their people have done things for generations. It's not a struggle with dogma, but a struggle to retain his identity in the face of change.

Summers has played Tevye several times but said there's always more to discover about the character.

"The first time I played Tevye, I was 23 years old and in college," he said. "I thought I understood him, but then again I didn't."

He understands him better now that he's in his mid-50s.

Summers thought actors need some mileage to really get under the skin of a character like Tevye. They needed to have lived a little to grasp the sort of man Tevye is.

Summers said he's lived a lot. He's struggled, faced lost and seen his fair share of change.

Summers got into professional acting while living in Wichita, Kan., in the late 1970s, right after he quit college. He worked in a dinner theater for about three years, but in the mid-1980s decided to enlist in the army, where he spent the next 12 1/2 years.

 "I did three shows while I was in the army, but for 11 years, I had nothing," he said.

He missed acting, but the army was good to him. It broadened his horizons. He worked as a broadcast journalist and saw a lot of the world.

"I was in Germany, Haiti, Honduras, Kuwait -- all kinds of places."

In the late 1990s, he left the military and picked up his studies at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, where he also got back into theater. It was first through student productions, and then later, he got a job with the Cape Fear Regional Theater in Fayetteville, N.C.

"That got my foot in the door," he said.

From there, Summers bounced back and forth between professional productions and student shows, supplementing his income with the usual actor day jobs. He waited tables. He sold cars.

"I delivered pizzas for a while," he said. "I even got robbed at gunpoint one time."

He also got divorced and earned his degree.

Summers said during the past several years he's been working in theater pretty steadily. 

"I'm finally where I want to be, 30 years later," he said.

He added, "What is really appealing to me about a character like Tevye is that he goes through the highest highs and the lowest lows, but there's always that bit of enduring hope."

It's one of the reasons "Fiddler on the Roof" resonates.

"Also, Tevye is a bit of a smartass."  

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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