If you’re on the fence as to whether the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s staging of Fiddler on the Roof is worth parting with a few of your hard-earned dollars, consider this — as far as musicals go, it’s director Jerry Allen’s favourite.
Coming from someone who has both directed and acted in “most of the classics” during a decades-long local community theatre career, that’s quite an endorsement. In short, Allen knows of what he speaks, his excitement over directing this musical as palpable as it is infectious.
“I won’t sleep the night before — I won’t sleep two nights before,” says Allen, adding “I’m anxious. I want everybody to do well and be happy doing it.”
“It (theatre) is the most exciting art form. You’re putting it right out there and you have no safety net. But it’s a joy to see people on stage having a good time and getting that applause.”
Being staged at the Showplace Performance Centre as the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s annual musical, Fiddler on the Roof is set for eight performances from Friday, February 16th to Sunday, February 25th. The show is already 70 per cent sold out.
Featuring music by Jerry Bock set to lyrics by Sheldon Harnick with book by Joseph Stein, the iconic musical debuted on September 22, 1964 at New York City’s Imperial Theatre, featuring Zero Mostel in the lead role. A commercial and critical success, it garnered nine Tony Awards on its way to becoming the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances — a Broadway run record it held for 10 years before Grease eclipsed that mark.
In 1971, millions more worldwide fell in love with the story, the characters, and the music when a film adaptation of the musical premiered. Directed by Canadian Norman Jewison, who died just last month, the screen version was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning a trio of the coveted statues, including Best Score Adaptation on the strength of songs such as “Tradition,” “Matchmaker Matchmaker,” “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Do You Love Me,” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”
Allen, who’s directing Fiddler on the Roof for a second time — he directed a St. Peter’s staging some 30 years ago — says if the term “timeless” can ever be applied to a production, this is that time.
“It’s just such a compelling story and it’s so topical now,” assesses Allen. “Antisemitism, the persecution of the Jews, seems to be rebounding. When the hell is this stuff ever going to away? So that’s a concern — that’s a kind of underlying theme.”
Fiddler on the Roof relates the story of a Jewish family living in the small village of Anatevka in pre-revolutionary Russia whose patriarch Tevye, a poor milkman, struggles mightily to maintaining cultural traditions in the face of modern values amidst a backdrop of antisemitism.
Tevye and his wife Golde have five daughters, the eldest three — Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava — of marrying age.
After Tevye agrees to an arranged marriage between Tzeitel and Lazar Wolf, a widowed but rich butcher, she falls in love with Motel Kamzoil, a poor tailor, and convinces her father to allow her to marry Motel instead.
After Hodel decides to marry a revolutionary student named Perchik, Tevye again reluctantly gives his blessing. However, when Chava chooses Fyedka, a Russian Christian, to be her husband, he disowns her.
The story concludes with the Jewish families in the village, including Tevye’s, forced to leave by Russian soldiers.
The musical’s name comes from the fiddler who intermittently appears, perched on a rooftop while playing the fiddle, symbolizing the precarious balance on maintain tradition in the face of change.
“Everything about it is appealing,” says Allen. “There are times when I’m watching it and nearly weeping. It’s so powerful, and the cast is so good, bringing their own emotions to it.”
Besides the directorial challenge of working with a large cast (“It’s moving bodies around for two hours and making it look like it’s not staged”), Allen says the choreography “is so demanding.”
“When Laura (Lawson) came on the scene, I was thrilled,” he says.
Lawson is pulling double duty for this production, not only serving as choreographer but also appearing onstage as Chava, Tevye’s third-oldest daughter.
“I started mostly in the ballet world,” relates Lawson, who attended the National Ballet School “as a little girl.”
“I came back home for a couple of years of high school at Lakefield College. I was torn as to what to do for university. I decided to study theatre, which I loved. It was a wonderful time. I spent five or six years working in theatre, mostly in Toronto. Then I had a fortunate turn of events that put medical school as an option in front of me and I went for it.”
Now a family doctor with a practice on Stewart Street, Lawson is thankful “to have the time and space” to pursue her passions of medicine and theatre.
“Chava is a great role,” she says. “In the whole play, there’s this dynamic of the Jewish townspeople and the Russian forces and the clash between them. Chava falls in love with a Russian. She takes it one step further and that’s the breaking point for Tevye.”
“She’s a fascinating character. Chava always has a book in her hand — she’s always reading. For me, that symbolizes a constant pursuit of knowledge and evolution of thinking and paradigms. She really puts that into play when she falls in love with a Russian. So there’s a really interesting dynamic of that push and pull between evolution and holding onto the glue, the traditions, that also hold value for her identity, her family, and her community.”
Wearing her choreographer hat, Lawson points out “a lot of the big musical numbers happen in the first act.”
“It opens with (the song) Tradition, which is where we meet the community. Then it moves into a pub scene which is a hoot — it’s a riot. Choreographically, that’s a real highlight. Then it moves into a dream sequence, which is always interesting because you get a lot of freedom there. Then there’s the wedding scene. Those are sort of the big dance numbers. In the second act, Chava has a lovely little piece as well — a memory of Tevye.”
Working “with a big cast with a wide variety of experience,” says Lawson, is “an interesting project, for sure.”
“All in all, this cast has done amazing. They’ve put up with me pushing them. Everyone has been challenged and really risen to the occasion. One of the neat pieces is that, when they did the original auditions, they were looking specifically for actors who could move but didn’t look like dancers. They want them to look like townspeople — people who happen to be so filled with music that it erupts in the movement.”
As for what she’s taking away from the experience, Lawson says this is her “heart song.”
“I love the theatre, I love music, I love dance, I love the community that it builds. It’s really about exploring the experience of being alive and connecting with other people.”
On top of that, Lawson says theatre has made her a better doctor.
“It allows me to fertilize that creative side, which invigorates me to go back and work with my patients as the best person I can be.”
“And there’s interesting overlap. I feel like every time I see a new patient, it’s a new scene. To be a good doctor, you really have to be present with that person. You have to be able to adapt from this scene to that scene. The other thing theatre teaches is to really listen. In order to help someone (as a doctor), you have to truly listen.”
As for working with Allen, well, that’s simply a huge bonus, says Lawson.
“Jerry is an exceptional director and an exceptional human being. He has such a great way of encouraging people to bring their best to the table. Nurturing their confidence, fine tuning things … he’ll push us to get us to where we need to be. He’s a sculptor in the way that he does that.”
Produced by Pat Hooper with musical direction by Janina Krauss, Fiddler on the Roof also stars, besides Lawson, Donnell MacKenzie as Tevye, Lyndele Gauci as Golde, Hilary Evans as Tzeitel, Christine Helferty as Hodel, Bruno Merz as Motel, Eddy Sweeney as Perchik, Simon Banderob as Feydka, Alex Hodson as Sprintze, Poppy Alderson as Bielke, Nicole Grady as Yente, and Matt Kraft as Lazar Wolf.
Other members of the cast include Karl Lawson as Yussel, Alex Hodson as Shprintze, Mike Edwards as Avram, Doug Hooper as The Rabbi, Ty Frajkor as Mendel the Rabbi’s son, Travis Edge as Villager/Bottle Dancer/Russian, Matt Kraft as Lazar Wolf, Cathy Brand as Villager, Chloe Brock as Villager, Jason Brock as Nahum The Beggar, Tilda Armstrong as Grandma Tzeitel, Andrianna Malloy as Villager/Russian, and Juliet Martin as Villager.
Fiddler on the Roof opens on Friday, February 16th at 7:30 p.m., with other evening performances on Saturday, February 17th and from Wednesday, February 21st through Saturday, February 24th. There will also be 2 p.m. matinee performances on Sunday, February 18th and Sunday, February 25th.
Tickets cost $37 for adults, $33 for seniors, and $25 for students. Although the show is being staged at Showplace Performance Centre, tickets are only available from the Peterborough Theatre Guild.
You can get them online at peterboroughtheatreguild.com or by calling the box office at any time at 705-745-4211 (if the box office is not open when you call, leave a message and they will call you back).
kawarthaNOW is proud to be a media sponsor of the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s 2023-24 season.