Fiddler on the Roof,” one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time, is sauntering, Russian folk-dancing and matchmaking its way into the Wood River Valley after a long process and a tremendous amount of work.
Rehearsals for St. Thomas Playhouse’s upcoming production of “Fiddler on the Roof” began in July. Musical practices, choreographic sequences, set construction, costume design, line-memorization and blocking have finally culminated into a massive theatrical undertaking for the Wood River Valley group.
“It’s one we’ve been wanting to do for a very long time,” director Brett Moellenberg said. “It took us a while to license it, but the time has finally come. It’s a real honor to get to do ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
The mainstage production will play at the Sun Valley Community School theater for four nights only, from Thursday, Sept. 19, through Sunday, Sept. 22.
The cast consists of nearly 50 actors, ranging in age from 11 to 85. Leading this sprawling cast in the iconic role of Tevye is local arts stalwart R.L. Rowsey.
For years, Rowsey has been a mainstay at St. Thomas Playhouse, Company of Fools, Caritas Chorale and a seemingly countless list of other acting groups and musical ensembles. His musical and theatrical repertoires run deep, but “Fiddler on the Roof” bears special significance to him.
“I decided to take a look at this play as a gift to myself. I played Tevye at the age of 17. It was the reason I grew my first beard,” Rowsey said, stroking his new beard, which is doubtlessly fuller than the one he grew as a teenager.
“I musical directed a national tour of it, worked with a guy named Sammy Dallas Bayes [a famous choreographer], so I got to do it on a really big scale. I played Perchik in my 20s in a community production. I know it well.
“I wallowed in musical theater my whole life, but as a musical director, a director, a producer, all those things. It’s rare that I face the noise of being the actor. This one I felt like it was worth it to go back. I love this play deeply. I love what it says. Plus, I get to sing ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ and do the shoulder dance,” he joked.
That song is one of many that most audiences will likely find instantly recognizable. “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “To Life,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Do You Love Me?” are just a few of the songs that became instant classics.
An ensemble of musicians under the direction of Dorinda Rendahl will provide live accompaniment for the singers on stage, and seventh-grader Lowie Watkins will fill the role of the eponymous fiddler.
“It’s some of the best musical theater ever written,” Moellenberg said. “The songs are so memorable. There are very few songs in that play that—even if you only have a peripheral knowledge of the show—you won’t recognize.”
The 11-time Tony Award-winning musical debuted in 1965 and by 1971 had been recognized, at the time, as the longest-running Broadway show ever. It was the first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances and held the record until “Grease” claimed the distinction in 1980.
The year 1971 also saw the release of the thrice Oscar-winning filmic adaptation. The Best Picture nominee has remained a consistently popular movie musical for nearly 50 years.
“Fiddler on the Roof” has remained an enduring piece of musical theater not only for the catchy and memorable music, but also for its universal themes of family, love and the limits of tradition.
“It’s a family story that most people can relate to,” Moellenberg said.
Kagen Albright, who plays the young Bolshevik teacher Perchik, said, “It’s a wonderful, beautiful story, and although we live in an entirely different time and place in different circumstances, there are certain universal things about living in a small community that ring true here.”
Establishing a sense of community and family is something upon which St. Thomas Playhouse prides itself, making it the ideal theater company for this particular show.
“I think that’s why I keep coming back,” said Heather Black, a Playhouse regular who fulfills multiple roles in this production. “It can be a multigenerational experience. You see it all the time—fathers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, whole families sometimes on stage together.”
Indeed, a glance at the full cast list reveals many repetitious surnames, including Mauldin twice, Loving twice, Knowles twice and Schiers a whopping five times.
Whether on stage, behind the scenes or in the audience, the objective is to unite people.
“What I love about St. Thomas Playhouse is that it brings together all these people who share a common love of musical theater, but might not share much else,” Rowsey said. “It’s always amazing with Playhouse productions to watch people discover their common threads. People of different religious backgrounds, philosophies, political points of view, north valley, south valley, economic structures—we all get into a room together to work on a common goal.”
That goal is coming to fruition in just over a week. All performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” commence at 7 p.m. at the Sun Valley Community School in Sun Valley.
Tickets are $15 for audience members under 18 and $25 for adults. Visit stthomassunvalley.org or call 208-726-5349 for details.