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Local talent embrace roles in Arena's 'Fiddler on the Roof'

Columbia resident Valerie Leonard as Yente (right) with Ann Arvia as Golde in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
Columbia resident Valerie Leonard as Yente (right) with Ann Arvia as Golde in "Fiddler on the Roof" at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Photo by Margot Schulman)

Two performers with local connections are lighting up the stage in Arena Stage's new production of "Fiddler on the Roof," the classic musical, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and runs through Jan. 4.

Dorea Schmidt, who grew up in Laurel, and Valerie Leonard, a Columbia resident, are dazzling audiences as main characters in the 1964 Broadway hit that garnered nine Tony Awards, including best musical.

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Schmidt is making her debut performance at Arena Stage and plays the role of Tzeitel, the oldest of a poor milkman's five daughters. Tzeitel does not want to go along with her parent's arranged marriage for her, but wants to marry her childhood friend, a struggling tailor.

Schmidt says the part is the biggest role of her career.

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"I was so excited from the audition to being told I got the part and would be working in the same room with [director] Molly Smith and [musical director] Paul [Sportelli]," Schmidt said. "It has been an incredible experience. I've learned so much because Molly expects a lot from us and she was alongside us to get us where we need to be for the show."

Leonard, a veteran actress who starred in lead roles in New York City for 20 years before moving to Columbia, plays two roles in the production — Yente, the village's designated matchmaker, and Grandma Tzeitel. Leonard has numerous Helen Hayes Award nominations, landed lead roles at regional theater companies across the country and starred in two national tours of "The Odd Couple," with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, but says she's still learning as part of the "Fiddler" cast.

"Most of the roles I did in the past were gut-wrenching leading lady roles and they were mostly very emotional," Leonard said. "I didn't get to do a lot of comedies. I've learned more crafting of comedy with Yente and the part is the perfect role to practice [comedic] timing."

The play, which deals with the issues Jewish residents of a close community facing such issues as racism, family values, love, immigration, individualism and tradition versus progress, is also filled with many humorous moments.

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Leonard says timing is so important in Jewish humor and credits her mastery of the one-liners and other comedic moments in "Fiddler" to her mother, who wrote a master's thesis about Jewish novelists when Leonard were growing up in Northern California.

"My mom and I would read the Jewish novels aloud and go to Jewish plays, so the rhythm and inflection which is so important in Jewish humor, it's up and down, became natural for me," Leonard said.

Throughout the show, Schmidt and Leonard dance and sing with a large cast and embrace their roles in Fichandler Stage's theater-in-the-round with a high level of professionalism, giving the audience a feeling of being a part of the action.

"There's 30 people on stage and the director, musical director and characters were all so entrenched with us in this open setting. It's a really lovely experience and wonderful collaboration," Leonard said.

Schmidt, who sings the show's well-known tune, "Matchmaker," said the dancing numbers were the most challenging part of the role, but you would never know it, watching her perform.

"My sister is the dancer of the family and I grew up thinking I was not a dancer, so I was so nervous coming in to the rehearsals and dancing," Schmidt said. "But my sisters in the show are great dancers and [choreographer] Parker [Esse] is the most gentle and encouraging person, who made it safe, fun and free, that I felt comfortable dancing."

Starring in the Arena Stage production of "Fiddler" is not the first time Schmidt has performed the play.

"I did it in the ninth grade. It was pretty bad," she laughed.

In that show, Schmidt played the role of Hodel, the confident sister who is a bit of a rebel and does things that go against the family's and community's traditions that sometimes shocks everyone. So, Schmidt automatically saw herself as getting cast in that part and not of Tzeitel.

"I didn't remember a lot about Tzeitel and saw her as boring, but now I love her character and relate to her the most. She's such a homebody, loves her family, is grounded and wants only to marry the man she loves and open a shop with him," Schmidt said. "She has a lot of passion and fights with her whole soul to get what she wants. She's complex and I'm still getting to know her."

Leonard, she said she never saw the play but did see the movie version of "Fiddler." Tall and slender, Leonard did not envision herself playing the role of Yente.

"I saw her as 2-feet-tall and 100 years old. I was like, am I that old," she said with a laugh. "What I love about this production is that the director is not stuck on how it was done before, but Molly had a new concept for the show."

Leonard said as she has aged and is not getting a lot of leading roles anymore, which she is comfortable with, she has stretched out into roles like Yente, where she's using and developing her comedic, character-acting and singing skills.

"I haven't done musicals for a long time and I've found a new niche here. Also, my transition into character acting is on its way and it's very exciting," Leonard said. "I'm embracing this wholeheartedly because all actors go through role changes as they age. I'm grateful my skills are there and that the [acting] community sees that."

Leonard has starred in shows at Arena Stage in theaters over the past 10 years, which is how long she's lived in Columbia. She moved here from New York, where she was acting and teaching at Queens College, to do the lead role in "Therese Raquin" at the Onley Theatre. She told herself she'd move here if she was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for her performance. She was in New York when the nomination was announced.

"Within two weeks, I decided to sublet my apartment and moved here on a trial to see how I felt," she said. "Within a year, I met my husband [actor and Helen Hayes Award winner Nigel Reed] and life changed. I had everything in New York except a mate, so I stayed."

Schmidt had a more circuitous route in ending up in the area. She grew up in Laurel and attended Laurel Woods Elementary and Murray Hill Middle School. Her family moved to Chile when she was 10 years old, and later to Costa Rica, which is where she did her first play as an eighth-grader. After high school, she initially majored in music at Messiah College in Pennsylvania but later switched to theater.

"I moved to drama my sophomore year because I knew I wanted to be a part of telling stories and missed that in the music department, even though I love to sing," Schmidt said.

In college, she took a semester at the National Theater Institute in Connecticut at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, an experience she said "changed everything for me. I truly fell in love with the theater."

Schmidt graduated in 2009 and appeared in roles in Harrisburg, where she worked for two years before landing a role in D.C. at the No Rules Theatre Company. She got married along the way, and with her husband, moved to Baltimore, where she appeared in theaters such as Everyman Theatre.

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Before eventually moving to Washington, Schmidt and her husband first moved back to Laurel two years ago.

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"We lived in an apartment that was in the backyard of Laurel Woods Elementary," she said. "So I came full circle and back to Laurel and my old school."

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