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‘Fiddler’ coming to Connecticut — Still heart-warming and wise…after all these years

ct cover 12-2-11By Mara Dresner

For a few days this November, the main stage of the Warner Theatre in Torrington will be transformed into the little village of Anatevka, where Tevye, a poor dairyman, will try to instill in his five daughters the traditions of his tight-knit Jewish community in the face of changing social mores and the growing antisemitism of

Czarist Russia. Yes, the classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is coming to the Warner, Nov. 2 through 10.

“Fiddler on the Roof” originally opened on Broadway on Sept. 22, 1964 at the Imperial Theatre. It ran for seven years and nine months, setting a record of 3,242

The Playbill for the original 1964 Broadway production of "Fiddler" at  he Imperial Theatre.

The Playbill for the original 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler” at he Imperial Theatre.

performances for long-running Broadway shows. The original cast was headed by Zero Mostel as Tevye.

Joe Harding of New Milford will be heading up the Warner Stage Company’s cast in that starring role.

“This will be my fourth time playing the role. So it is more of a calling every time someone wants to stage the show. I’ve always thought of ‘Fiddler’ as the ultimate community show mostly because it’s about a community. It has its joyful times, its difficult times and of course its traditions. We fight, we play, we laugh, we cry. We all work together to reach a goal: an amazing show by opening night,” said Harding, who by day is a healthcare worker with Ability Beyond Disability.

Harding grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he first played the role as a high school student. While he is not Jewish, he said that many of his classmates were and he became very familiar with Jewish traditions from bar mitzvahs to sitting shiva.

Some of his classmates told tales of their families escaping from Russia. “They put bearskins on their back and snuck out,” he said.

Harding noted that every time he’s played the role, he’s been at a different stage of life.

“Next year, it will be 30 years since the first time I played the role. Back then, I wasn’t married,” he said. “Now my daughter is the age of one of the older daughters in the show. As a father the role has become a lot more meaningful over the years. How he relates to his daughters is something that has really popped in my own life. It’s something I can now relate to on a different level.”

The cast features almost 50 members, including 10 children, from towns around the state, including Avon, Canton, Bristol and Waterbury.

Warner Stage Company Production Manager Sharon Wilcox called “Fiddler” a “classic, beloved musical” and the cast “wonderful,” but, she said, producing a show that was such an integral part of musical theater history isn’t without its challenges. “I think there are expectations, … and we have to live up to those expectations,” she said. “Tevye has to be larger than life and carry the entire production; he never leaves the stage.”

She said even if you’ve seen “Fiddler” before, it’s worth seeing it on the Warner main stage, a 1,772-seat Art deco theater.

“It’s unlike seeing anything anywhere else; it’s majestic,” she said. “It’s wider than many Broadway stages. You can fit two Thomaston Opera Houses on our stage. You can expect something larger than life.”

She has a tradition at the first rehearsal for actors who have never performed at the Warner. She brings them onstage with their eyes closed and has them wait until she turns on the lights before they open them. “The expression on people’s faces the first time they get to see that is priceless,” she said.

Tenderness & tradition

“Fiddler on the Roof” began life when Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein decided to adapt Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” to the musical stage. The title stems from the painting “The Fiddler” by

Marc Chagall.

“We can learn from this family in Anatevka about deep family values, about maintaining and preserving  traditions, and about overcoming  diversity in changing times in our society,” said Donna Bonasera, who is directing and choreographing the production. While she has choreographed the show previously, this is her first time directing the musical.

“The major themes of ‘Fiddler’ I feel [are] family, work ethics and instilling the traditions of the Jewish community in the face of changing social mores,” said Bonasera, who is an original member of the Warner Stage Company, as well as founder and artistic director of Connecticut Dance Theatre. “It’s relevant to audiences of today and even more so than 40 years ago. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’  enhances in today’s audience a sense of pride in the Jewish faith and a deeper understanding of the Jewish culture and richness of  history.”

Bonasera called the music “breathtaking.” Some of her favorite numbers are “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Sabbath Prayer.”

While one might expect Harding to choose a classic, such as “If I Were a Rich Man” for his favorite, he instead chooses a quieter moment as a high point in the show.

“I think it’s when he [Tevye] finally comes to the realization that the world is changing around him and he’s talking to his wife about love and it’s almost a foreign concept. And he asks his wife, ‘Do you love me?’ And she kind of in her own way says yes,” he said, referring to the song between Tevye and his wife, Golda.

TJ Thompson is the music director and will conduct a full orchestra.

Bonasera said that several cast members are Jewish and are helping to coach the others on the rituals in the play.

“I love being able to pass on history and help young people understand all our different cultures; it’s a wonderful historic lesson as well,” said Bonasera, who said she is in “awe of the talent we have right here in the area.”

“I have such a tremendous respect for the play itself and learning about Jewish heritage and culture, and the music is absolutely stunning.”

“Fiddler on the Roof” won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1965 and the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 1991. Many consider the show to be the last show of Broadway’s “Golden Age.”

Bonasera, who first saw the musical “at least 30 years ago,” said it’s no secret why the musical still draws audiences. “There’s so much emotion in the play,” she said. “There’s tenderness; there’s the hardship; there’s the work ethic; there’s the family; there’s tradition.”

Warner Stage Company will present “Fiddler on the Roof” Nov. 2 through 10, at the Warner Theatre, 68 Main Street, Torrington. For tickets visit warnertheatre.org or call (860) 489-7180.

“FIDDLER” FACTS

  • “Fiddler on the Roof” originally opened on Sept. 22, 1964, at the Imperial Theatre. It ran for seven years and nine months originally, setting a record of 3,242 performances for long-running Broadway shows.
  • The original cast was headed by Zero Mostel as Tevye (Danny Kaye, Tom Bosley and Danny Thomas were among the other actors originally considered for the role) and featured Beatrice Arthur as Yente, Julia Migenes as Hodel and future game show host and producer Bert Convy as Perchik. Bette Midler assumed the role of Tzeitel during the original run, as did Pia Zadora the role of Tevye’s youngest daughter, Bielke.
  • “Fiddler on the Roof” was adapted into a film version in 1971. Chaim Topol played the role of Tevye. Topol had also played Tevye when it opened in London’s West End on Feb. 16, 1967 at Her Majesty’s Theatre.  It played there for 2,030 performances. The film won multiple Academy Awards and two Golden Globes.
  • “Fiddler on the Roof’s” first Broadway revival opened on Dec. 28, 1976 at the Winter Garden Theatre. Starring Zero Mostel with direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, it played 176 performances.
  • “Fiddler on the Roof’s” second Broadway revival opened on July 9, 1981 at the New York State Theater. It starred Herschel Bernardi as Tevye and played for a limited run of 53 performances.
  • Fiddler on the Roof’s” third Broadway revival opened on Nov. 18, 1990 at the George Gershwin Theatre. Starring Topol as Tevye, it ran for 241 performances. The production won the Tony Award for Best Revival.
  • “Fiddler on the Roof’s” fourth Broadway revival opened on Feb. 26, 2004 at the Minskoff Theatre. Alfred Molina, and later Harvey Fierstein, starred as Tevye. The production ran for 36 previews and 781 performances.
  • “Fiddler on the Roof” was first revived in London in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria Theatre (a four-month season starring Topol). It was revived again in 1994 at the London Palladium, as well as in 2007 at the Savoy Theatre.

Highlights of major awards won

Tony Award – Best Revival of a Musical (1991)

Tony Award – Best Musical (1965)

Tony Award – Best Composer (1965)

Tony Award – Best Actor (1965)

Tony Award – Best Featured Actress (1965)

Tony Award – Best Author (1965)

Tony Award – Best Costume Design (1965)

Tony Award – Best Choreography (1965)

Tony Award – Best Director (1965)

Tony Award – Best Producer (1965)

 

‘Brand-new 1931’ Warner Theatre undergoes extensive restoration

By Mara Dresner

The Warner Theatre in Torrington is part of a grand tradition of theaters in this country. It was built as a movie house for Warner Brothers Studios in 1931 for $750,000.

warnerThey chose Torrington because they believed that the population paralleled that of New York City. It was designed by the famous Scottish-born architect Thomas Lamb

who designed more than 150 other theaters, including the Roxy and Strand in New York City, the Orpheum in Boston and the Palace in Waterbury; for interior decoration, Warner Brothers hired Rambush Decorating Company, which is still in business in New York City today.

Warner Brothers sold the theater in the 1950s as part of a federally mandated divestment plan.

The theater was extensively damaged in the great flood of 1955, said Marketing Manager Lesley Budny.

“That flood seriously affected downtown Torrington. The way the theater is established, it’s on a downhill slope. The water came in and went down the slope. All the seating and carpeting was completely destroyed. … After that, although there was still programming and film in the theater, the seats were falling apart and it was no longer a nice place to be, and through the years, there was less and less programming.”

Budny said that while “several different owners tried to bring it back,” by the 1970s, the theater was in disrepair, before being slated for demolition in the early 1980s.

“That’s when the community rallied,” said Budny.

A non-profit group, Northwest Connecticut Association for the Arts (NCAA), was founded and purchased the theater. The organization successfully raised $30,000 cash to secure a $100,000 mortgage within a two-month period.

“People have their stories about their first kiss at the Warner, about their first dates at the Warner. This would never have happened without the dedication of the community. When you look at how it was revitalized, it was truly an astonishing community effort. They wouldn’t let their Warner Theatre go down,” said Budny.

The Warner Theatre is one of a few of the original Warner theaters still standing.

The Warner Theatre orchestra section

The Warner Theatre orchestra section

“When you look historically at the theaters built by the Warner Brothers, several hundred theaters have been turned into parking lots,” said Budny. “[The Warner] is one of the last remaining in existence that hasn’t been demolished. That speaks volumes.”

The restoration itself was a lengthy project. The Warner reopened as a performing arts center in 1983. In 2008, the new 50,000 square-foot Carole and Ray Neag Performing Arts Center, which houses the 300-seat Nancy Marine Studio Theatre, the Warner’s onsite school for the arts and a 200-seat restaurant opened. Today, the Warner is in operation year-round with more than 170 performances and 120,000 patrons passing through its doors each season. More than 8,000 students, from toddler to senior citizen, participate in arts education programs and classes. Together, with the support of the community, the Warner has raised close to $17 million to revitalize its facilities.

In 1997, a major restoration effort began to restore the theatre to its original art deco style and, in November 2002, the theater held a grand reopening.

“I call it brand new 1931,” said Facilities Manager Bill McKenna, who’s been with the theater for 15 years, both in that capacity and as a volunteer. “The carpet had to be made fireproof; we copied the old carpet exactly except it’s fireproof. We added a couple of lighting things, so we can do stage shows.

“The lobby is probably better than 95% accurate; the inside of the theater is better than 98% accurate. All of the fabrics, the textures, the colors are accurate. It’s brand-new 1931,” said McKenna, who noted he finds the “star in the center of the theater and the ceiling the most striking.”

During the restoration, a team of designers researched the original carpet design and was able to recreate the pattern from a photograph. The design team was even able to locate the company in South Carolina that manufactured the carpeting in 1931; that company still had the original order and was able to reproduce the carpeting.

The front ticket booth and will-call window are the original box office. The theater is on the National Register of Historic Places, indicated by a plaque in the lobby.

“It is completely restored,” said Budny. “It’s here because of the community.”

 

 

 

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