"Fiddler" again plays its relevant, timeless tune

Posted Online: May 22, 2014, 11:40 pm
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
"Fiddler on the Roof" -- the beloved classic musical about a tight-knit Jewish community in poor, Tsarist Russia in 1905 -- has lost none of its power, passion or relevance since it opened on Broadway 50 years ago.

Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse is mounting a new production, its fifth over the theater's 37-year history, with the same veteran director -- Jim Hesselman -- as its last version, in 2003.

"'Fiddler' hasn't changed; I've changed," he said this week. "As you get older, your perspective of the show changes. If you become a father, this is a different show. You watch it as a daughter, there's something to identify with. You change more than the show does.

"You don't get too old for this show," Mr. Hesselman (who's been involved in eight "Fiddler" productions over the years) said. "You see it at 20 and see it at 40, a totally different show."

"That's one of the things I love about this show -- you can watch the show over and over and over, through your entire life," said Marc Ciemiewicz, a Circa Bootlegger who plays the patriarch, the simple milkman Tevye. "And that's why so many people adore this show, especially men. Men aren't usually loving of musical theater. If their wife drags them to see this show, they will love this show. Because they can absolutely relate to everything that happens.

"Everything will change for you every time you see it," he said. Mr. Ciemiewicz, 37, first saw the 1971 film when he was 8 years old and has acted in four previous productions, always with his eye on the lead role (immortalized originally by Zero Mostel on Broadway and Chaim Topol in London and the movie).

"It's a bucket-list role for me," he said of the iconic father of five daughters. "Did I expect it to happen now? Not necessarily. There's this idea Tevye is supposed to be this 60-year-old man, that he's supposed to be old. Tevye is not old." (Topol played the part first at 31, and Mostel on Broadway was 49.)

"It's 1905, at 60 years old, you're old. So 37 years old, he's perfect for Tevye," Mr. Hesselman said of his leading man, who's had comedic roles in other Circa shows, such as "Miracle on 34th Street," "Nuncrackers" and "Happy Days: The Musical."


"People like Zero Mostel, and others who've played it, were Borscht Belt comics. They could handle the humor but also tear your heart out," the director said. "They can do realistic drama and it's not vaudeville. And Marc is a performer, and you have to be a performer in a good sense to be Tevye."

"To me, it's so timeless," Mr. Ciemiewicz said of the heartfelt humor and stark, painful drama. "In my mind, there really isn't anything like Tevye in musical theater, unless you go to the female roles -- when you look at Dolly, when you look at Gypsy, Mame. It was all about the female star.

"There were male leads, but they were always the matinee hero. They weren't character men," he said of older shows. "For me as a character man, and yes, I normally play the comic -- it's so wonderful also to have the dramatic aspects as well and to let myself go in that direction."


Rachelle Walljasper plays Tevye's wife, Golde. She is a veteran of such recent Circa shows as "Always a Bridesmaid," "Things My Mother Taught Me" and "Southern Crossroads." A "Fiddler" newbie, she can relate to the part because she and her husband Tom (a Circa regular) are going on 26 years of marriage and have three daughters (ages 26, 21 and 11).


"I can totally connect that way," Ms. Walljasper said. "When I was younger, I was like Golde because I was very exact. Things had to happen a certain way, and I was very bossy. I think I've mellowed as I've gotten older."

Any parent can relate to clashes with their kids -- "that moment you have to let them go, and you see them struggle through it, and it's hard to watch them struggle," the actress said. "Then at the same time, you see it's helping them become a better person. It's hard, but we went through it, too. It's life."

"Even though I'm not a father myself, I'm trying to put myself in that area. These are my babies, my little girls," Mr. Ciemiewicz said of Tevye's older daughters. "As they leave me, one by one, it starts to kill me."

"It's hard for Golde to accept; I want my daughters to have a good, solid family life," Ms. Walljasper said. "These men (Motel and Perchik) -- I'm scared, because he's a poor tailor, and he's a pauper, that they're not going to be able to provide for my girls."

"Motel is a poor tailor. He can't give her the life that Tevye and Golde want for her," Mr. Ciemiewicz said, "The same with Perchik; she marries a vagabond scholar. Tevye loves that. Tevye wants a learned man, but he has nothing. And he wants something better."


"It's all about the children, perpetuating the family, the community and the religion. It's about tradition," Mr. Hesselman said. "It's not a sad musical at the end. It's sobering, but it's hopeful. We are resilient, and that's any group of people that people try to get rid of. We're not just talking Jews."

"Fiddler" poignantly reflects the plight of all immigrants, he noted. The universal theme of tradition cuts across barriers of race, class, nationality and religion, Mr. Hesselman said.

Its bountiful score includes songs such as "If I Were A Rich Man," "Sunrise, Sunset," "Tradition" and "Do You Love Me?" -- partly responsible for making it one of the greatest works of the American stage, once Broadway's longest-running musical (with 3,242 performances).


Mr. Ciemiewicz's family came to America from Poland; his great-grandfather spoke six languages and taught in Poland, but couldn't get job as a professor, having to work in the coal mines in Pennsylvania.

"The turn of the century, that's what it was. You're a Polack, you don't have any clues," he said of the attitude then. "Yet, he made a life for his family in the States. Everybody, generationally, wants to make a better life for their children. I know Tevye and Golde want the same for their children."

"I think as a culture, we haven't gone through any struggles since the Great Depression. We've had bad things happen, but we've had it easy," Mr. Hesselman said. "Fiddler" reveals "the bond of the family, but it also shows how hard they had to work and the respect they had for themselves because of how they worked," he said. I think that's something we're missing today."


With music director Ron May, Mr. Hesselman also partnered on Circa productions of "Hairspray," "Legally Blonde: The Musical," "The World Goes Round" and "8 Track."

Among Fiddler's cast is a group of fellow Circa veterans: James Fairchild ("Grease"), Brad Hauskins ("Southern Crossroads"), Jody Alan Lee ("Hank Williams: Lost Highway"), Mitch Donahue ("Legally Blonde"), Andrea Moore ("Cats"), and Aidan Sank and Rachel Scimenti ("Buddy"). Ms. Walljasper's daughter, Krianna, plays one of her daughters in "Fiddler."

In addition to being part of Circa's performing wait staff, Mr. Ciemiewicz is a frequent director of its children's shows, and has helmed two productions of "Avenue Q" at The District Theatre.

"I'm one of those people that needs something different to do," he said, noting he loves interacting with audiences as a Bootlegger. "As a director, it gives me another artistic outlet. As a performer, that's what I've always done, even as a kid. For me, being an entertainer, being an actor, putting on a different facade, is part of life."

If you go
What: "Fiddler on the Roof."
When: Tonight through July 19; 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; Sundays at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m.
Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
Tickets: $49.12 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $43.37 for the plated-lunch matinées, available at the box office, 309-786-7733, ext. 2, or at circa21.com.


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