A play of ‘great happiness and great sadness’: Theatre Lawrence to wrap up season with Broadway classic ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journal-World

Knute Pittenger, bottom, appears as as Tevye and Ric Averill as the fiddler during a rehearsal of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Theatre Lawrence on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

The last time Theatre Lawrence performed the Broadway classic “Fiddler on the Roof” was nearly 25 years ago, and it has been trying for the past 14 years to do it again — with no success until now.

That’s because getting the rights to a show can be tricky, and the more popular the show the trickier. If a professional company is performing the show anywhere in the area, community theaters are essentially “blacked out,” says Mary Doveton, the founder of Theatre Lawrence. And someone, it seems, is always performing “Fiddler” somewhere.

But 2024 is a good year to have lucked out on getting the rights, Doveton, who’s directing, says, because it’s the 60th anniversary of the 1964 musical, which won nine Tony Awards and was the longest-running Broadway musical until it was dethroned by “Grease” in the mid-1970s.

“Fiddler” tells the story of a poor Jewish family in 1905 in Ukraine. Tevye, a hard-working dairyman, is an Old-World but good-natured patriarch. He and his no-nonsense wife, Golde, have five daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age; against tradition, the girls want to choose their own husbands — resulting in a sometimes comical, sometimes sorrowful drama played out against an increasingly menacing antisemitism in Eastern Europe.

“The play has great happiness and great sadness,” Doveton says.

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journa-World

The cast of Theatre Lawrence’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” poses for a photo at Theatre Lawrence on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

Written just two decades on the heels of the Holocaust, but based on much older Yiddish stories by Sholem Aleichem, “Fiddler” is often seen as a tale of Jewish joy, pain and resilience, but it also stands out as a feminist touchstone.

Doveton notes that the musical was written in the middle of the civil rights movement, when women were demanding equal rights and a greater say in their choices and destiny.

“One of the interesting things about the show is that change — the breaking down of so many traditions — is brought about by the women,” Doveton says.

Despite the show’s intricate connection to a very specific time and place, its preoccupations — family, community, tradition, love, bigotry, displacement, change — are so universal that it has found a global embrace.

“It’s super interesting to me that it has been so effective all over the world,” Doveton says, and in places that you might not expect, like Japan, where “Fiddler” has become practically an institution.

One of the first Japanese directors of the show, she said, inquired of visiting consultants, “Do people in the United States understand this show? This is such a Japanese play.”

But Japanese culture, like Eastern European Jewish culture, is steeped in tradition, often to a similarly rigid degree. “Tradition,” in fact, is one of the musical’s main songs, and it’s the delicate balance between tradition and change that propels the story line.

But for all of “Fiddler’s” thematic relevance, it was something more visceral that attracted Knute Pittenger to the role of Tevye.

“The music,” he says, without hesitation. “The bottom line for me is the music. Up and down throughout the entire show. I’ve always just enjoyed every song in this production. That’s the reason I auditioned.”

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journal-World

Knute Pittenger plays Tevye during a rehearsal of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Theatre Lawrence on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

And that’s the reason he was chosen for the part, Doveton says.

“Knute has an incredible voice,” she says, and he “projects a natural warmth” like the character Tevye, whose reverence for tradition continually bumps up against his huge and compassionate heart.

Pittenger has played Tevye before. In fact, it’s the first show he ever did, way back in high school — he’d rather not say how way back — and “I was kind of hooked from that point on.”

photo by: Theatre Lawrence

A rehearsal of the famous bottle dance from Theatre Lawrence’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

When the huge cast of “Fiddler” — around 40 actors — takes the stage this weekend, the audience can expect all the traditional elements that made “Fiddler” so famous: the original score, including the wedding staple “Sunrise, Sunset,” the color palette inspired by the Modernist paintings of Marc Chagall, and the “bottle dance,” which involves actors balancing bottles on their heads while dancing.

“They are not attached,” Doveton says, which induces a kind of thrilling anxiety in the audience. “No matter how many times you see that dance, you still kind of hold your breath to see if the bottles are going to fall.”

In the spirit of embracing change, the Theatre Lawrence production is also incorporating a few new elements into the musical, one of which involves a 3-D printer and “giant puppets,” the brainchild of technical director James Diemer, who was looking for a fresh spin on the nightmare that Tevye pretends to have to change his wife’s mind about their young daughter’s betrothal to the old butcher.

“Each (puppet) head is about 2 feet tall and about 17 inches wide, and they’re going to be these huge rod puppets, so they’ll be probably about 12 feet up in the air” and looming over the nightmare ghosts, Doveton says.

“It’s going to be such fun,” she says. “That scene is going to be so good. So good.”

“Fiddler on the Roof,” which wraps up the current season, opens Friday at 4660 Bauer Farm Drive and will have multiple performances through June 23. For information about tickets, call 785-843-SHOW (7469) or go online at theatrelawrence.com.

Theatre Lawrence’s next season will open in September with the musical comedy “Young Frankenstein.”

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journal-World

The cast rehearses a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” at Theatre Lawrence on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journal-World

The full cast rehearses a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” at Theatre Lawrence on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journal-World

Ric Averill plays the fiddler in Theatre Lawrence’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Theatre Lawrence on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Journal-World

Actors rehearse a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” at Theatre Lawrence on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

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