Bringing the shtetl to the stage

Amateur actors’ group LOGON is performing ‘Fiddler on the Roof‘ in seven cities across the country.

Tevye (Eric Isaacson) and Golde (Patrice Perez) in a scene from LOGON’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ (photo credit: ARMAND PEREZ)
Tevye (Eric Isaacson) and Golde (Patrice Perez) in a scene from LOGON’s production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’
(photo credit: ARMAND PEREZ)
Tradition: It’s a word with many layers of meaning. But for the actors and crew members of LOGON, their tradition is a devotion to musical theater.
And for their 36th production, they’re once again bringing to the stage the much-beloved classic Fiddler on the Roof. The shtetl of Anatevka will come alive on stage during LOGON’s nine shows around the country, with a live orchestra and an exuberant cast.
Fiddler is “something which is on the one hand, essentially Jewish, but it is absolutely universal in terms of human experience,” says Eric Isaacson, who plays the family patriarch Tevye.
“This is a universal human story,” he continues, drawing parallels from the plight of the people of fictional Anatevka, evicted from their homes by the Cossacks, to today’s Syrian refugees fleeing Islamic State and Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram.
Indeed, the play – performed on Broadway and later immortalized on film – has proven timeless; as endlessly popular today, more than 50 years later, as it was then. The tale of Tevye the milkman, his wife, Golde, and their five daughters toiling away in the Pale of Settlement, with little to keep them going but their religious beliefs, is one that has been staged around the globe, from Tokyo to Berlin, Paris, Panama City and Johannesburg.
Alan Cohen, who plays Lazar Wolf and is also co-producing the show, says that while the story is universally felt, performing for a mostly Jewish, Israeli audience has an impact.
“We’re playing Fiddler on the Roof to an Israeli audience who can really identify with the story and the heritage involved,” he explained. “We can use Yiddish phrases, we can say ‘Good Shabbos’ instead of saying ‘Good Sabbath,’ we can use those sort of words that wouldn’t be acceptable to an American audience.”
Cohen also says he felt the film “tried to make the Russians a little bit less threatening… in order to be a bit more politically correct.” But in the LOGON production, “we don’t have to sugarcoat it, we try to be a bit more faithful to the original Sholem Aleichem story.”
Dozens of members of the Beersheba-based amateur actors troupe are participating in the production, which will stage shows in Jerusalem, Netanya, Rehovot, Beersheba, Kfar Saba, Nesher and Modi’in.
In each city, partial proceeds from the show will benefit the charitable organizations which organize the ticket sales.
“In order to play Perchik I had to lose 10 kg. to play a starving student,” he recalls, expressing his gratitude that “this time, there’s no such requirement – because I’m playing Lazar Wolf, who’s a wealthy butcher.”
He also noted that last year was the 50th anniversary of the show’s original Broadway debut, and “we want to attract a new generation of audiences that aren’t familiar with the show. A lot of people are bringing their children and grandchildren.”
Cohen isn’t the only familiar face this time around – Gail Greene even reprised her role of Fruma Sara, the ghostly wife of Lazar Wolf – though she still had to audition again.
Casting aside, Cohen sees this production as a vast improvement from their earlier staging 19 years ago.
“Looking back at the video of the 1996 production, everything looks very static,” he says. “The last 10 to 15 years, we’ve been working a lot on our choreography and the movement. Everything we do now is fast dancing and moving – hardly a moment goes by without us doing some sort of dance step.”
Cohen also credits the group’s voice training, physical warm-ups and the influence of director Yaacov Amsellem, one of the production’s few paid professionals. Amsellem, in his eighth year with LOGON – in addition to musical director David Waldman, choreographer Keshet Margolis-Stein, vocal coach Kristina Hawthorne and costume designer Melanie Lombard – are the only paid members of the cast and crew. The rest, many of whom have been with the group for decades, spend hours upon hours of their time working on the production for the love of it.
“I cannot think of anything better than doing something that you enjoy and to make an effort at it,” says Isaacson. “It doesn’t matter that I have so much to do, it’s what we’re doing. There’s an incredible experience when you have a group of people literally from eight to over 80 working together.”
The production is funded mostly by ticket sales, and the rest from members’ dues, grants from the Beersheba Municipality and the Education Ministry, and funding from US foundations, according to Patrician Golan, a LOGON chorus member who does publicity for the group.
While Cohen estimates that about 75 percent of those involved in the play are Anglos, many are native Israelis, including students from Ben-Gurion University and locals – drawn from across the Negev – who enjoy the theater and get to work on their English.
The cast also has a family feel, notes Golan. This year’s ensemble includes “three siblings, whose mother is the flutist; a father, wife and daughter; grandfather and granddaughter; father and son; and four sets of married couples,” she says.
Isaacson himself has “the wonderful privilege” of having his daughter in this year’s play, cast as – who else? – one of Tevye’s daughters.
“There is a feeling of creating and doing what we do – which is very, very special,” enthuses Isaacson.
“There’s no commercial support to spoil it, we’re doing something out of love; we’re giving to the community with love.
“You come along to rehearsal, you’re tired, you had a long day, but there’s a spark that comes about,” he adds. “We’re doing this together… this really is a wonderful group of people from so many walks of life creating something together.”
According to Cohen, “This year, because this show has so much dancing and movement, we tried to recruit as many young people as we could. We really have a great new group of people, of youngsters and teenagers, who’ve joined and are with us for the first time of youngsters; it really brings a lot of vibrancy to the group.”
But this year, in an ironic twist of real life imitating art, the LOGON team will have to a find a new home after decades in the same place – much like the people of Anatevka. For more than 30 years, the group has been storing all of their sets and props – as well as holding their rehearsals – in the Beersheba Mental Health Center. But by the end of the summer, they will have to vacate their home, as the center is slated for renovation.
“Just like in the story of Fiddler on the Roof, where they leave Anatevka because they were forced out of their home, we’re going to be forced out of our home after 30 years,” says Cohen. “Now, we’re desperately looking for a new home for our group – which is real life recreating art!” Shows are being held from February 19 to March 19 around the country.
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