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GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Enrique Brown of 'Fiddler on the Roof'

November 3, 2005 - by Adrienne Onofri

When David Leveaux's re-envisioning of Fiddler on the Roof opened at the Minskoff Theatre in February 2004, it was accused of not being “Jewish enough.” That characterization stemmed in part from the employment of non-Jewish actors in several principal roles and the inclusion of people with names like Enrique in the cast.

That Enrique is Enrique Brown, who's been with the revival since it opened and will most likely finish out the run (the show's scheduled to close Jan. 8). Though he's Texas-born and bred and of Norwegian, Spanish, Mexican and Native American ancestry, Brown has a history with Fiddler : He was in two regional productions of it pre-Broadway. And based on his bottle-dancing panache and his spirited quick-as-a-wink dialogue scene, there's no doubt that he belongs in Anatevka.

Brown loved creating the camaraderie of the scene, in which an overjoyed Motel asks Yussel the hatmaker (played by Brown) for a hat for his wedding. When Yussel tells him the hat was meant for Lazar Wolf, a newly emboldened Motel proclaims: “I got his bride. I can get his hat!”

“Normally, you never really get to see Motel have friends. Something that John Cariani [the original Motel] and I came up with for our little scene to build that friendship between Yussel and Motel is running in and jumping into his arms,” Brown says. “I used to just give him a hug. One day, for some reason, he picked me up—and then it stuck.” Brown continued the airborne embrace with Cariani's replacement. “But the third Motel was no bigger than I was, so he couldn't catch me. We had to reinvent how to show this friendship,” he says. “Now we've got the fourth Motel—he's big enough to catch me, but he's going back-and-forth because he's still getting used to the show [Jacob Fishel just joined the cast in late October].”

Staging their scene to emphasize the relationship between the two men, and not just get a laugh, was part of Leveaux's vision for Fiddler . “When we originated the show, they wanted to treat it like a play as opposed to a musical. This whole process of being a play, we're trying to make families and trying to make friends, trying to show real people, a real village,” Brown explains.
“They wanted the dramatic side of it. The humor was there— it's in the script—but they were trying to get away from Zero Mostel, doing the comedy bits, the caricatures, the way Fiddler 's always been done [and the way Brown had done it in earlier productions].”

The tone altered somewhat when Harvey Fierstein replaced Alfred Molina as Tevye (to much acclaim) in January. “In the rehearsal process, we all started to feel it, and once he opened, it started to blend: you've got him being the way Zero Mostel used to be, hamming it up and everything else, yet he tends to blend with the way we were taught the show, he gets dramatic.” Brown and the rest of the Fiddler company dealt with another, even higher-profile addition to the cast this fall, when Rosie O'Donnell took over as Golde. “She knew her material when she came in. By the time of her previews, we started realizing she's not there to be who Rosie O'Donnell is. They play off each other so well,” Brown comments.

Fiddler is Brown's third Broadway show, but his first not choreographed by Susan Stroman. He was in The Music Man for the last five weeks of its run in 2001—busting out of the ensemble to cover the role of Tommy Djilas for a week—and then in the 2002-03 Oklahoma revival. He also was in Carnival at City Center Encores!, so all his New York work has been in revivals. A new musical, Brown says, “would be the next thing as far as my career that I would like to do. It would open up more doors to not be only looked at as doing revivals.” (He did do the workshop of the Dirty Dancing musical, which has yet to formulate any Broadway possibilities.)

Brown started performing in musicals before he even took a dance lesson. The summer he turned 7, he was one of Baby June's newsboys in Gypsy at Dallas Repertory Theatre. His sister, 12 years older than him and a dancer herself then, had “taught me a tap step for the audition, how to do a shuffle.” He enrolled in dance class a few weeks after the show closed. Brown left his Garland, Texas, home halfway through high school so he could attend the Virginia School of the Arts. He had participated in a summer program there after his sophomore year and was asked to stay on. For junior and senior years, he attended a local Lynchburg, Va., public school in the morning and the arts school for the rest of the day.

Upon graduating, Brown was offered a spot in Ballet Oklahoma. He had also auditioned for Ballet Austin, and was planning to dance there while studying sports medicine at the University of Texas (before devoting so much of his time to dance, he had played baseball, basketball, football and soccer throughout his childhood). But he didn't get into Ballet Austin, so he went to Oklahoma. Brown spent four years in the company, being promoted to principal dancer after just one season. His ballet roles included the Prince in The Nutcracker , Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet , Kastchei in Firebird and his favorite, Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (he now has the sprite tattooed on his stomach). During the summers off from the ballet, Brown performed at Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City, in such shows as Cabaret , Song & Dance , Man of La Mancha , Tommy , The Music Man and Fiddler (his other Fiddler run was in his hometown's Garland Summer Musicals).

When he left Ballet Oklahoma in 1999, Brown was going to join State Street Ballet in Santa Barbara, Calif., but that didn't pan out. Instead, he went on tour with Fame the Musical . It's been strictly musical theater since, but Brown tremendously values what he gained from ballet. “If you've started in the ballet world, making the transition, it gives you an advantage,” he says, “because choreographers, like Susan Stroman, like technical dancers, and that's what she looks for.”

He also gained something invaluable from doing Fame : a future wife. He met Tera-Lee Pollin—whose other credits include Urban Cowboy on Broadway and, earlier this year, Swing at Maine's Ogunquit Playhouse—when they were both performing in Fame , and they just celebrated their second wedding anniversary. They got married at Disney World, with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Pluto among the reception guests (Pollin's family are Disney fanatics and frequent visitors). Brown was already in Florida for the wedding when he received (by fax) his Fiddler contract; he found out he was cast right before departing New York. But rehearsals didn't start until after he returned from his Hawaii honeymoon—which is why he was able to audition for the show in the first place. “When Oklahoma closed [in early 2003], I couldn't audition because my wedding was in October, so anything that was auditioning spring into the summer was either opening in October or rehearsing in October,” Brown recalls. The break gave him time to grow a beard and longer hair, so for the Fiddler audition he looked more like an Anatevkan than the clean-shaven farmer he'd been in Oklahoma .

Earlier this year Brown had another hiatus—this one due to an old football injury. In high school he had chipped a bone in his left knee while playing ball, and extra cartilage formed under his kneecap as it healed. It wasn't a problem until one Fiddler performance last winter, when he felt something painful after the bottle dance. The excess cartilage, part of his meniscus, had torn. He had surgery on Feb. 4 and was out of the show for three months.

Doing the bottle dance, both pre- and post-surgery, Brown has to concentrate more on the bottle than the dance steps, because it is not Velcroed to or screwed into his hat. “By now the movement's become fluid, and it's about how to make it look like you're balancing the bottle” without actually letting it topple. So far, so good—in a year and a half he's never dropped the bottle (though some of the other dancers have). But he did lose control of it in one performance after he had taken it off the hat: It flew out of his hand and shattered on stage.

The wedding scene isn't Brown's favorite part of Fiddler , though. That would be “To Life,” when his character is inebriated. “In my opinion, it's one of the more powerful moments in the show. The men celebrating, rejoicing. That's one of the things they wanted us to be specific about in the show: Even though the Jews suffer and dwell on their pain, they do celebrate life.”

In addition to Fiddler , Brown has been working in recent weeks on the Julie Taymor film Across the Universe , due to be released by Revolution Studios next year. It's about a group of friends in the 1960s and has an all-Beatles score—“almost like a jukebox movie musical,” Brown says. His numbers include “Come Together.” But at this point Brown isn't looking for a new direction in his career. “I'm not really into TV and film,” he says. “I love the live experience and getting the different reactions every night.”

He did do film work when he was growing up, appearing in several commercials shot in the Dallas area and in the 1985 movie Noon Wine for PBS' “American Playhouse.” He was 8 years old and played Fred Ward's son, a character portrayed as a young man by a then-unknown Stellan Skarsgård.

Top photo: Enrique poses next to the picture of his bottle-dancing alter ego outside the Minskoff Theatre.


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