Theater at Latitude 58 will be bringing the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” to Juneau.
“This show has a huge emotional range,” Director Karen Allen said. “Tevye tells us in the opening monologue it’s all about trying to keep your balance …that our lives are as shaky as the fiddler on the roof. The play has hilarious moments …and it turns on a dime and smashes into sadness and then back. One of the saddest moments in the whole play ends in a joke. It’s a lot of work.”
The story follows Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living in Russia in the early 1900s with his wife and five daughters, three of whom are of marrying age. He tries to maintain his religious and cultural traditions while his three oldest daughters’ choices of husbands go farther and farther outside the customs of his faith. In the meantime, there are tensions between the Jews and the Russians.
Allen called the production of this play timely.
“Times are interesting in our country right now,” she said. “Anti-Semitism is on the rise. We’re seeing Nazis marching openly and more often than we have in decades. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ isn’t only about anti-Semitism, though that’s part of it. People love the show because it’s about change, and it’s about surviving persecution, and it’s about the power of community, and it’s also about just how crushing prejudice and societal pressure can be. It’s hopeful but it’s horribly, horribly sad. …It speaks to us in a way easier lessons don’t.”
Latitude 58 is an educational, non-profit theater group founded in 2012, melding children’s theatre and community theatre together. The group has grown, from doing their first performance, the one-act musical “Sunshine” in a room above Juneau Urgent Care, to “Fiddler on the Roof,” which has 53 people onstage at Thunder Mountain High School.
The play will feature the dancing from the original musical which Allen called “more organic and easier” than the musical they performed last year, “White Christmas,” which involved tap dancing. They’ll even be doing the infamous bottle dance (but with plastic bottles), and Tevye will do his iconic “If I Were a Rich Man” shimmy.
The cast will sing, accompanied by a small orchestral pit. Some of the cast will double as a character on stage or a musician in the pit, like Solomon Unzicker, who will play the Fiddler. Allen said she made only one tweak to the original musical. The final song of the show “Anatevka” is written to be sung by six people, she said, but she will have as many characters as she can perform the song.
“I wish sometimes audience members could be in the rehearsal room and see just how much this cast loves this play and each other,” she said. “I looked up from (a recent rehearsal) and we were finishing the final scene …where the family is walking off the stage. I looked up and half my chorus is crying. They’ve seen this I don’t know how many times. … The amount of joy this cast has put into this show is humbling beyond words. “
One of Allen’s biggest fears when deciding to put on “Fiddler on the Roof” was finding somebody to play Tevye. “…if Tevye is not good, it’s really hard to salvage the show,” she said, but went on to say she is happy with her casting decision to give the role to Michael Wittig.
“We had a couple of good choices, possibilities on the first day of auditions, but Michael is such a strong performer and he is one of the hardest workers I know,” she said. “He has taken this from the very beginning and refined it, and worked with it, and asked questions, and he takes it home and he thinks about it and he works on it some more.”
Wittig began acting in 1994, and has performed with Juneau Lyric Opera, Perseverance Theatre, Theater in the Rough, and with Theater at Latitude 58. He had initially auditioned to provide moral support for his son, who ended up being cast as the Yussel the hatmaker, and then he landed the lead role. It was a bigger role than what he initially wanted, he said, but as soon as he knew he was cast, he dove into the script so he could rehearse off book as soon as possible. He’d seen the musical performed in the past as well as the film. He got his hands on “Tevye the Dairyman” by Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, which “Fiddler on the Roof” came from, and received new insights into the character.
“I did not start in acting until my 30s, and ever since I got involved I almost feel like kicking myself for not getting into it sooner because it’s a great deal of fun,” he said. “I kind of lament all my friends in high school who used to do this stuff and no longer do it. What are they thinking! So I’m very happy to be working at Theater at Latitude 58 and I’m pleased to see all the kids involved in theater and pass that story along to all of them because it’s a lifelong hobby. I’m having a great deal of fun and really, that’s what it’s all about. “
“Fiddler on the Roof” runs from Friday, Nov. 17-Sunday, Nov. 19 at TMHS. The Friday performance is at 7 p.m., the Saturday performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and the Sunday performance at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors. They can be purchased through Vendini, at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and at Hearthside Books. To learn more about Theater at Latitude 58, visit them on Facebook or their website theateratlatitude58.com.
• Clara Miller is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly.