Stage Left: ACT’s ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is on equal footing with large scale productions

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2024

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Stage Left by Taryn Israel Nechanicky

Rural community theater provides opportunity and potential for excellence. How often does it deliver? I can only say the Albert Lea Community Theater’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” exceeds expectations, and in my opinion, is on equal footing with suburban and urban large-scale theater productions! Said simpler, we are so fortunate to have such talented and hard-working volunteer actors, singers, dancers, musicians, directors, stage crafters, costume designers, board members and all others who work to make such fabulous productions possible!

Taryn Israel Nechanicky

Though I’ve never been in a play or musical, unless you count elementary school, I was asked to review Fiddler on the Roof. I believe this is because, as a local Jew (one of a literal handful), I have some understanding of the context in which the play is set. My parents included “Sunrise, Sunset” as part of the music in their 1972 Jewish wedding ceremony. I grew up loving the music and privately sang the songs with gusto. My grandfather, whom I called Papa, routinely showed love, as did Tevye, the father who was called “Papa,” by advising his children and grandchildren to button up our coats in cold weather. This moment of Tevye (Jason Howland) telling his daughter Hodel (Ava Cunningham) to button up as she left to join her husband, Perchik (Logan Strom), who was far away in Siberia, brought tears to my eyes. Who knows when Tevye (not to mention the rest of the family — this patriarchy reflects the time period accurately) will see his precious daughter again.

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“Fiddler on the Roof” is set in an imaginary town called Anatevka, within the historical context of 1905 Russia. This was a time of increasing danger for Jews, with pogroms occurring. Cambridge’s dictionary defines pogrom as, “an act of organized cruel behavior or killing that is done to a large group of people because of their race or religion.” Pogroms were one reason many Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement emigrated to places like the U.S., Israel and any country who would accept them, as did my ancestors. My 15-year-old great-grandmother walked on foot across Europe with her 17-year-old boyfriend, sent by their parents to escape to a better future. They never saw their parents again.

Jews are not the only people who will enjoy this performance, thank goodness, or ACT would be in trouble! Everybody and their sister needs to go see it! When again will you have the chance to see the likes of a 17-piece professional quality musical group performing in a fenced area right on stage, to hear the gorgeous deep resonant voice of Jason Howland belting out, in a perfect Yiddish accent, the simultaneously touching and humorous lyrics, a cadre of local ALHS graduates come back to bless this production with their singing and acting, an ensemble cast that adds delight, power and drama to an already amazing production, and the talents of our local children, who balance bottles on their heads while dancing, and work long and hard at their craft of performing, not just as extras, but as crucial to the play.

From one song to the next, one act to the next, I was enthralled and taking notes about the stunning moments in this production. Some highlights to look out for: “If I were a Rich Man” contains crossed eyes, animal noises, shadow work on the wall, a special prayer for a Russian Czar, dry humor from Connor Hanson, eagerness personified by Logan Strom, Mottl the tailor’s introduction sweetly and joyfully played by Angel Hernandez. Other highlights include harmony beautifully sung by Sue Wiersma, piano, strings, woodwinds, brass, Garrin Loveland doing the high splits, Fruma Sarah’s (Melissa Griffith) operatic and powerful singing, the catchy Mazel Tov tune and dramatic staging and choreography of the ensemble, the exuberant wedding scene of Tzeitel (played delightfully by Emma Barclay) and Perchik. The humor of Lazar Wolf. “Do you Love Me?” As sung gorgeously by Jason and Sue. The moment when it is decided that Chava is dead to the family, so heart wrenchingly portrayed by Joey Maiden and the ensemble’s turning their backs on her. This brought full-on bawling.

Humor as an antidote to suffering is a big theme in the play, and in the life of Jews at this time. A statement by Papa during the play resonated for the particular time we’re in. A resident of Anatevka says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and Tevye says, “very good, that way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” Applied to what is currently going on in Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine, Sudan and Thailand, this theory of returning one act of violence with another leads to ongoing violence rather than diplomacy.

May we heed this reminder, and work to infuse our thoughts, speech and actions with peace.

Taryn Israel Nechanicky is an Albert Lea resident.