Dek: The youth theater company celebrates an anniversary and
Question: What has 85 kids, a violinist and three Milkmen?
Answer: The J*Company’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The timeless 1964 musical opens the celebrational 18th season of the youth theater company housed at the Lawrence Family JCC. They’re calling it their “Chai” season. ‘Chai’ means ‘life,’ and in Jewish numerology, it also stands for 18, which is considered to be a lucky number. The season features an array of shows with Jewish themes: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Children of Eden,” the musical “13,” and “Goodbye Memories,” a new drama about Anne Frank — before she went into hiding. But the granddaddy of them all is the season opener, “Fiddler.”
This isn’t the first time in 18 years the company has produced the beloved Bock and Harnick classic, but it’s the biggest, with a cast of 85 (ranging in age from 7-18) and it includes songs that were cut from the original production before it moved on to Broadway. So there may be a few songs you won’t be able to sing along with.
“These are fantasticially beautiful songs,” crows J*Company artistic director Joey Landwehr. “One of them will be a duet between Tzeitel, Tevye the dairyman’s oldest daughter, and our fantastic onstage fiddler, Ms. Myla Wingard.” Wingard is a professional violinist; her 10 year-old daughter Adira is also in the cast.
Two of the actors playing Tevye, the marvelous character created by 19th century Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, are adults: Phil Johnson and Hal Grant. Johnson is a popular and accomplished comic actor about town; two decades ago, Grant understudied the great Theodore Bikel in the national tour of “Fiddler.” Now his daughter, age 15, stands beside him as Golde, Tevye’s wife.
“It’s a wonderful moment,” says Landwehr, “when they sing the world-weary love-song, ‘Do You Love Me?’ That just adds another emotional layer to the show.”
When the adults aren’t onstage mentoring the kids and showing them how pros do it, 17 year-old Kevin McRee plays Tevye. When Johnson or Grant is performing, McRee slips into the role of the butcher, Lazar Wolf.
The J*Company has fashioned other unique elements of this timeless and universal story of “Tradition” vs. modernity, played out in the shetl life of 19th century Russia.
The scenic design (created by choreographer Deven P. Brawley) is based on the paintings of Marc Chagall, including the iconic picture of the precariously balancing fiddler.
“The set has Chagall’s beautiful colors and funky angles,” explains Landwehr. “And many roofs that the actors amble across. During the Dream Sequence, Lazar Wolf’s deceased wife, Fruma Sarah, will be floating around the stage in a very magical way.
“We didn’t want this to be your grandmother’s ‘Fiddler,’ says Landwehr. “We wanted it to have a little Life of its own.” Here’s ‘To Life,’ as they sing in the show: “L’Chaim.”
The J*Company production of “Fiddler on the Roof” runs October 15-24 in the David & Dorothea Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC.
Tickets — $16 — are available at 858-362-1348 or www.sdcjc.org/jcompany