Maintaining your balance

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By Doug Deuchler

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There's an exciting new theater group in the community called SWAG (Suburban West Actors Guild). Their first full production is the rousing celebration of roots, culture, and family, Fiddler on the Roof, which is now 52 years old. Though performed on the confined stage of Beye School in Oak Park, director Kamau "Maui" Jones really makes this often minimalist production soar. His large and lively cast is strong.

The musical, based on Yiddish stories by Sholem Aleichem, is set in Czarist Russia 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 this rural area struggles with poverty, oppression and accelerating change.

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

Ben Goodman, who was a frequent flier on local stages a generation ago, returns in the leading role of Tevye, an orthodox, philosophical milkman, the father of five girls, who is the heart of the story. He is rich in daughters but poor in everything else, despite his hard work. Tevye's horse is lame and hard times seem to be growing harder. Goodman is strong in the role yet manages to catch the character's softer side and convey his inner conflicts too.

"Tradition," the musical's attention-grabbing opening number, quickly defines the show's theme. "Without our traditions," Tevye explains, "our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." Yet he seems to constantly struggle between his devout faith and the suddenly changing times. He often kibbitzes with God for answers.

Tevye's sharp-tongued wife Golde is portrayed by Tamara O'Reilly. Her hesitant display of tenderness in response to Tevye's "Do You Love Me?" is very dear. 

Each of their three oldest daughters breaks with the longstanding tradition of relying on Yente, the village matchmaker, to find them husbands. Yente is played by Louise Gale [also the executive producer and mother of TV actor Johnny Galecki]. The strong-willed young girls each want to marry for love, a rather radical concept in early 20th-century Russia. Will their clashes with their father's traditional values cause a rift in the family?

Tevye's oldest daughter Tzeitel (Madeline Mitchell) falls for a meek tailor, Motel Kamzoil (Domingo Morales), though she's supposed to marry a much older widowed butcher named Lazar Wolf (Phil Frigo). Morales bursts into joyous song with "Wonder of Wonders" when he finally announces his wedding plans.

Tevye's second daughter, Hodel (Katie McClatchey), is attracted to a revolutionary student rebel and tutor named Perchik (Frank Blackman). Third daughter Chava (Amanda Winkle), falls for a gentile Russian, Fyedka (Peter Klattner III). This last match, with a non-Jewish suitor, is the hardest of all for Tevye to come to terms with. 

I wondered how Tevye's big dream sequence might be staged, wherein long-deceased Grandma Tzeitel (Mary Jo Christenson) returns to forewarn Tevye about the need to prevent young Tzeitel from marrying the wealthy old butcher. His first wife, Fruma-Sarah (Laura Liden), is often depicted as a high-flying zombie. But this staging manages to be thrilling even without a lot of special effects.

The large cast contains too many individuals to mention everyone, but Eric Lindberg as Mendel, Lizzy Behrendt as the title Fiddler, and Richard Schoen as the Rabbi were especially enjoyable. 

The show-stopping choreography is by Anita Gabor, and musical director David White has a fine pit orchestra of six instruments played by White, Michelle Mathena, Sammy Jo Zale, Eurgene O'Reilly, Jenny Carlton, and Ben Mason.

Before the show opened and during the one intermission there were vintage recordings playing Yiddish music hall songs from the early 20th Century.

Friday, Nov. 18 and Saturday, Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 20 at 3 p.m. at Beye School, 230 N. Cuyler Ave., Oak Park. Visit swagtheater.com or call 708-669-8696.

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