“Fiddler on the Roof” opens this week

Director, leads from longtime Alhambra family


Fifty-nine years after “Fiddler on the Roof” debuted on Broadway, its popularity continues unabated — so much so that near-perpetual revivals and touring productions have made it very difficult for modest venues to acquire the performance rights.

“We’ve been trying for years to get it,” said Tod Booth, creative director and producer for Alhambra Theatre & Dining. “It hasn’t been available.”

But on Thursday, Aug. 3, that will change. The popular Jacksonville venue will present more than 50 performances of the timeless musical for the first time in many years, concluding the run on Sept. 17.

And, for the first time in his six-decade theatrical career, which includes multiple stints in “Fiddler” casts, Booth will play the lead role of Tevye.

“Fiddler on the Roof” tells the story of a Jewish family living in Ukraine early in the 20th century. Seen through the eyes of the family’s patriarch, the characters struggle to find their place in a changing world while contending with oppression by Russian authorities. The show features such iconic songs as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”

At its core, the show is about family.

And family is at the heart of this Alhambra production.

Playing opposite Booth in the role of Golde will be his wife, Lisa Valdini Booth, herself a well-established actress with more than 40 years in the business. Furthermore, the couple’s daughter, Jessica Booth, is the show’s director.

These close relationships stand to strengthen the interplay between the lead characters who at one point pause in the midst of their 25-year marriage to ponder something novel: whether they love one another.

Such a personal, nearly poignant, moment gambles with the audience’s suspension of disbelief but is salvaged — even elevated — by performers who can draw from the experiences of a shared life.

Beyond that, such familiarity adds a level of trust between the director and performers, a quality essential to any stage production.

“I can trust that they can fulfill my vision,” said Jessica Booth, who is directing her first major musical at the Alhambra. Growing up in the theatre, she has had endless opportunities to observe her parents’ stagecraft and knows her confidence is well-placed.

“If she asks me to stand on my head and spit wooden nickels, I’d at least try,” said her father. “I owe that to her, to try it. And if it doesn’t work, she’s going to be the first person who tells me it doesn’t work. … There’s respect. There’s an honesty. There’s a rapport. There’s communication. All these things make this process work.”

In fact, this familiarity fosters a kind of practical empathy.

“As family, you kind of get in that same groove and wavelength, so you know exactly what they’re talking about,” said Lisa Valdini Booth. “Sometimes, they don’t even have to verbalize it … you immediately see it through their eyes.”

This is not the first time Jessica Booth has directed her parents in a stage production. She did so in Alhambra’s 2020 production of “Love Letters.” That show only has two characters, so family ties perhaps played an even more central role.

Universal themes

“Fiddler on the Roof” opened Sept. 22, 1964, at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway and was transferred to two other venues before completing its then-record-setting run of 3,242 performances. It won numerous Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The show is based on a series of stories written between 1894 and 1914 by Sholem Aleichem, based on his own upbringing near Kyiv.

The central figure is Tevye, who struggles with his daughters’ choices regarding marriage. Each daughter in succession selects a husband less in keeping with Tevye’s worldview than the last. At first, he grudgingly adapts to what he sees as a crumbling of the traditions that define his life, but ultimately, he reaches a point where he cannot bend any further.

At the same time, Tevye’s village of Anatevka is being terrorized by Russians acting on an edict by the tsar.

While “Fiddler” appears rooted in a very specific time and place, its themes make it easily understood by all cultures, which is probably the secret behind its enduring success.

“It’s as relevant today as when the musical first came out,” said Lisa Valdini Booth. “The family’s trying to adhere to core values when society is forcing all kinds of outside influences.”

It’s a misconception to think that, because the characters are Jewish people living in 1905 Russia, the show is contained within that specific group.

Said Tod Booth, “It’s universal. It just tells it in the context of the Jewish community. The universality of the show is the key to it.”

Nothing says this better than an anecdote Jessica Booth shared about the musical’s first international production in Japan.

Jerry Bock, who wrote the show’s music, and original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins traveled to Japan to see the production. That show’s director asked them if Americans understood the story, which must have surprised the men.

The director explained his question: “Because this is a very Japanese story.”

The stage is set

Audiences who’ve seen “Fiddler,” either on stage or the 1971 film adaptation starring Topol, may be forgiven for believing all versions are alike. Yes, the story remains consistent. Yes, the same great musical numbers are performed. And yes, highlights like the bottle dance are staples.

But each version is unique. And nowhere is this more relevant than in the Alhambra show.

Where many companies present “Fiddler” on a large stage, spreading out the action and placing the performers at a distance — sometimes relying on spotlights to facilitate intimacy, this version is tailored for the near-theater-in-the-round experience.

And that’s where Jessica Booth and the Alhambra team are able to deliver a heightened involvement with the audience. If this were a film, the scene would cut to close-ups to communicate the characters’ emotions, the subtleties in expression that reveal their innermost thoughts. It’s not something easily achieved on a traditional stage.

But the Alhambra space places the audience within an intimate distance of the performers, which draws them into the characters’ lives and struggles.

“I think it’s actually a perfect show to kind of minimize and really see those dynamics between the family members,” said the director.

And, as with all of the venue’s productions, the Alhambra crew has created an innovative set that is both effective and masterfully efficient. The background manages to depict Tevye’s house, Motel’s shop and the inn while suggesting all of Anatevka. Tevye’s house will actually open up to reveal the inside during certain scenes.

The sets are the work of a technical crew that has been with the Alhambra all of Jessica Booth's life and clearly know their stuff.

“I trust that they can take what I say and execute it perfectly for the Alhambra stage,” she said.

Life in the theater

Tod and Lisa Booth owned The Alhambra Theater for about 25 years, continuing the mission set forth by the theater’s founders, Ted Johnson and George Ballis, who opened it in 1967. In 2009, the theater was bought by Theater Partners LLC, with Craig Smith as managing partner.

Tod Booth actually started singing and dancing when he was 16 years old, alongside famed actor and comedian Don Ameche.

He went on to college and worked as an actor but soon realized he would need to diversify to keep the bills paid. It was a wise decision; he’s remained employed throughout his long career.

“I’d do anything,” he said. “I’d produce. I’d direct. Musical director. I designed sets … I’ve done everything in the theater. My ego didn’t say I had to be an actor.”

Not all of his work was on the stage. For a time, he worked in television, beginning with “The Odd Couple,” which starred Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.

He met and married Lisa Valdini in Chicago, where she had earned her degree in theatre.

“We came down here two years after we were married, and we’ve been here ever since,” she said.

In addition to stage productions, she did a lot of voiceover work and was the voice of Winn Dixie for several years. She also hosted a show on HGTV, “All in Good Taste.”

The Booths found life in comparatively small Jacksonville to their liking and found it an enjoyable place to operate a dinner theater.

“It’s just so wonderful to be able to pursue what I love to do, what I was trained to do, in this environment as opposed to a big city,” Lisa Valdini Booth said.

Still, her first priority was always raising her kids and taking care of her family. In this way, she can identify with Golde, though she differs significantly in personality. Where Golde remains stern and practical, the actress portraying her is warm and laughs easily.

Still, her husband finds similar traits between the two.

“(Golde) sort of straightens (Tevye) out when he gets carried away — that’s out of real life,” he said, joking. “Keeps me on a short leash and yanks it once in a while!”

Daughter Jessica began acting at 8 years old, directed by her father.

“This is all I’ve ever known, is the theatre community,” she said. “I was so excited to be part of the magic as a little girl.”

In fact, she played the title role in “Annie,” with her mother as Miss Hannigan. She appeared in the show two times after that in more adult roles, literally growing up in the theater.

In fact, this was around the time the Alhambra first presented “Fiddler,” and young Jessica Booth was mesmerized.

“I was in love with Motel the tailor,” she said. The company did the show again when she was 12. “Then, I was in love with Fyedka. I grew up with this show and have seen it so many times in this space, it’s really cool to now be the director.”

She attended the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and went on to study theatre at the University of Central Florida. She performed for the first decade following commencement, traveling the world as a singer for AIDA cruise lines and then working in New York.

Like her father, she diversified and worked as an assistant to a Broadway producer on such shows as “Kinky Boots,” “The Color Purple,” “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” “Pippin” and “Rent.”

Today, she directs shows in Texas and North Carolina.

But, she said, “Alhambra will always be home.”

Tevye returns

Tod Booth has been growing a full beard for the first time so he can portray Tevye, though he admitted he would need to add a bit of youth — read: color — to it.

When people think of Tevye, they probably imagine Topol, who played the role in the movie, or Zero Mostel, who originated it on Broadway.

But Booth has his own style and makes the role his own.

“Mine probably is a little more aggressive,” he said. “He’s not so laid back.”

In addition, Booth brings a sense of comic timing to the part, though not so much as to detract from the very dramatic moments in the show.

“The key thing with Tevye is you have to choose someone who you want to spend time with,” said his daughter. “It has to be someone whose presence you enjoy, and you want to hear their story. If Dad is anything, it’s a storyteller.”

“I’m excited about it,” her father said. “It’s going to be fun.”

He encouraged local residents to come to the show and share the experience. Given the popularity of “Fiddler on the Roof” and Alhambra’s reputation for presenting high quality shows, it’s certain that audiences will respond.

In fact, according to Tod Booth, attendance has been so good that there haven’t been any vacant seats to speak of for the venue’s last three shows. And that’s a good thing for a venue that wants to remain viable. It’s also a good thing for the performers.

“We want to share this with the audience,” he said. “We want to share the message. We want to share our endeavor and our hard work. But theatre doesn’t exist without an audience.”

Alhambra Theatre & Dining is located at 12000 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville. For tickets, go to alhambrajax.com. The business phone number is 904-641-1212.