The best of OPRF's theater 'tradition'

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By Doug Deuchler

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We don't usually review student productions in these pages but the current show running at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Fiddler on the Roof, is so well done I must bring it to your attention. And there's still a weekend left to see it. 

You'll be charmed and impressed (while witnessing your property tax dollars at work) if you attend a performance of this outstanding production. The theater arts program really tops itself with this one, with roughly 175 local teens involved, either onstage, in the orchestra pit, or behind the scenes.

If you've never been to one of the winter musicals at OPRF or you haven't seen one in a long time, let me recommend this current extravaganza. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the 1964 Broadway hit is one of the all-time favorites of musical theater history. Fiddler was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances. 

Whether you'll know any students onstage or not, I'm sure you'll be amazed by this rousing, heart-warming celebration of roots, culture, and life itself. Director Michelle Bayer really makes this show soar.

The massive cast of 100 students is hugely talented. There is also a live pit orchestra of 35 musicians and 40-some other students involved in the technical aspects of this production. There's lots of flashy dancing, and the chorus of male dancers is especially energetic and impressive. 

The musical, based on Yiddish stories by Sholem Aleichem, is set in the Ukraine in 1905 in a small village called Anatevka. This was a period when both the Russian revolutionary spirit and anti-Semitism were on the rise. The rural Jewish community has heard of nearby pogroms (organized harassment and even massacre). Everyone in the village struggles with poverty, oppression, and accelerating change.

I've seen many mountings of this beloved show over the years, but I've never seen one where the nimble fiddler actually fiddles while straddling the rooftop. Violinist Ben Srajer plays this title role, a metaphor for joyous survival in precarious times.

The well-known score (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) does not contain one dud, from the lovely "Sunrise, Sunset" to the showstopper, "If I Were A Rich Man."

Tevye, the philosophical milkman who is the heart of the story, is not wealthy, despite his hard work. His horse is lame and the hard times seem to be growing harder. Eli Weinberg is outstanding in this role. He's stalwart and powerful yet also capable of catching Tevye's softer side and conveying his inner conflicts. 

His sharp-tongued but loving wife Golde is portrayed by Lily Blackman. 

"Tradition," the musical's attention-grabbing opening number, quickly defines the theme. "Without our traditions," Tevye explains, "our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." Yet Tevye is caught in the conflict between his devout faith and changing times. He often turns to God for answers.

Each of his three daughters breaks with the longstanding tradition of relying on hilarious old Yente (Rachel Pospisil), the village matchmaker, to find them husbands. These strong-willed girls want to marry for love, a rather radical idea in early 20th-century Russia. 

Tevye's oldest daughter, Tzeitel (Ella Gill), falls for a meek tailor, Motel Kamzoil (Jonah Zimmerman), though she's supposed to marry an older widowed butcher named Lazar Wolf (Dominick Alesia). Zimmerman bursts into joyous song with "Miracle of Miracles" when he finally announces his wedding plans.

Tevye's second daughter, Hodel (Sage Pope), is attracted to a revolutionary student named Perchik (Charlie Wissglass). Chava (Nora Kraft), the third sister, falls for a non-Jewish Russian, Fyedka (Rory Schrobilgen). This last match is the hardest of all for Tevye to come to terms with.

He tries to resist the changes coming to his deeply patriarchal society, but he never puts tradition before the happiness of his daughters.

There are far too many gifted performers in this giant production to mention everyone by name. But I am especially proud of our high school for typically promoting color-blind casting with African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos prominent in the troupe.

The village constable (Bobby Halverson) initially shows respect toward Tevye and his Jewish neighbors. Joe Dennis is the Rabbi. Robert Hunter Bry is Nachim, the beggar.

There's an exciting, blue-tinted dream sequence in which Grandma Tzeitel (Hayley Yussman) returns to forewarn Tevye about the need to prevent young Tzeitel from marrying the old widowed butcher. His first wife, Fruma-Sarah, flies high in the air (Caroline Caffrey) like a zombie Peter Pan. This scene, with scores of ghostly visages as the chorus, is pretty amazing. 

Though this musical is warm and nostalgic, underneath the comedy, the jubilant dancing, and the many memorable show tunes, there is a deep sadness for a disintegrating way of life and insecurity about a fearful future. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the Czar's Cossack soldiers eventually push the Jewish villagers off their land into abrupt exile. They scatter in all directions — Krakow, the Holy Land, even Chicago. I'm sure some of the young actors in this show descended from Eastern European or Russian forebears who became immigrants following the kind of situations Fiddler depicts. 

Almost every number becomes a showstopper. There is plenty of dynamic dancing, thanks to choreographer Amber Hooper.

Jacob Fisher is the tech director and designed the lighting. Joe Hallissey created the set, which includes an inclined ramp that encircles the stage and orchestra pit. Jeffrey Kelly's costumes capture the poverty of the period while being respectful and memorable. Make-up and hair (including a ton of beards) is by Patricia Cheney. 

Patrick Pearson is the instrumental director and Elaine Hlavach the vocal director.

Get ready to be razzled and dazzled by a lively, touching, tuneful musical now a half-century old. They sure don't make 'em like this any more. 

Come check it out and support the outstanding theater arts program at Oak Park and River Forest High School. I guarantee you'll be impressed.

Reader Comments

2 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Molly from Oak Park  

Posted: March 4th, 2014 10:22 AM

Bravo!!!

ms. Love from Chicago  

Posted: February 26th, 2014 9:29 AM

I truly enjoyed this production! It truly shows hard work pays off. Hats off to all staff and students involved. I can't hardly wait for next year's performance. Hey?, I may even go and see it again this weekend! Amazing!

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