Hartford’s JCC caps off its centennial celebration with an intergenerational tip of the hat to its long legacy of excellence in theater arts
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – The last time the Mandell JCC staged a community production of the hit musical “Fiddler on the Roof” was 1988. In those days, the popular West Hartford meeting place was known as the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center, and its production of “Fiddler” was the centerpiece of a month-long arts event called “Variations on a Jewish Theme: The Immigrant Experience.”
Now, as the legendary Tony Award-winning musical prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a revival on Broadway, it is also set to return to the JCC stage in December, with an intergenerational cast that promises to keep alive (and well) the Center’s “tradition” of the best in community theater.
“For nearly three decades, the Mandell JCC has been home to a very strong youth and teen theater program,” says the show’s director and choreographer, Carolyn Mostel Weiser. “This year, to honor the Mandell JCC’s centennial and rich heritage, we decided to expand upon that program’s strength to include the full range of JCC members, young and old. It’s been a thrill to see members of all ages collaborating – dancing in the Green Room, singing and acting in the theater, taking care of each other when a young actor needs a helpful adult.”
Over its 100-year history, the JCC has been home to a cornucopia of live theater, ranging from amateur to professional, and involving actors of all ages. Yiddish theater was very popular for a time. Several community theater companies put on full seasons of straight plays and musicals. For 10 years, starting in 1956, the JCC (then the Hartford Jewish Community Center) featured “Evenings in Theater,” an annual series of three professional productions whose playbills include such luminaries as Sir John Gielgud in “The Ages of Man,” Emlyn Williams in “A Boy Growing Up,” Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight,” Dame Judith Anderson in “Medea,” and Al Pacino in “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” Initially, the JCC staged plays in the King Phillip school auditorium before the JCC opened in 1962 the Herbert Gilman Theater – a professional-level 400-seat theater.
In response to the inaugural season, local critics hailed the JCC’s new theater program as a worthy addition to the city’s arts scene.
Hartford Courant arts reviewer Theodore H. Parker wrote, “This was the first venture of the Hartford Jewish Community Center committee for the arts in adding to the theater stature of this area. It was indeed auspicious, not only in the offering but in the fact that it attracted a sold-out house of 800 to a fine event.”
Drama critic Evans Clinchy wrote in the Hartford Times, “We have not seen or heard the like of it in this old town before, but perhaps we shall not have to wait so long again. For with this production…a new venture in the local arts was born, a venture that may prove to be the city’s most important theatrical and artistic debut since the New Parsons Theater was created [in 1951]…”
Teen theater was performed consistently until the 1960s and was then revived in 1982, when Weiser, then a teen herself, was the director. The cast of the first production, “Damn Yankees,” included Jessica Hecht, who has gone on to a highly respected acting career in theater and TV, and who will play the role of Golda in the upcoming Broadway revival of “Fiddler.”
Several other teens who made their mark on the JCC stage also created – or are in the midst of creating – names for themselves as professional actors. David Alan Basche has starred in several TV sitcoms, including “The Exes,” “The Starter Wife,” and “Lipstick Jungle,” as well as numerous live theater productions. Nathan Klau, who appeared in the first national tour of “Jersey Boys” on Broadway is on TV in “Boardwalk Empire,” “Black Box,” and “Forever.” Joseph Fierberg is currently in the national tour of “Elf” after a year in the national tour of “Beauty and the Beast.” Steve Mooney recently did a national tour of “The Addams Family” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and was in last summer’s production of “Spelling Bee” at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. Arielle Haller-Silverstone has written and starred in the one-woman show “Doris Day: What Will Be Will Be,” which was presented as part of United Solo Theatre Festival in New York.
The JCC’s upcoming production of “Fiddler” is one of only a handful of intergenerational shows staged by the JCC theater program, whose musicals typically feature children and teens in all roles, according to Weiser.
The cast is also unusual in that it includes several parent-child pairs: Eric and Zach Goldberg, who play the rabbi and the rabbi’s son, respectively; Sandrine Sebag and Victoria Boustani, both in the ensemble; Joseph and Ruthie Harrison, who play Avram and Hodel, respectively; and Weiser and her daughter Sydney Weiser, director and Fruma Sarah, respectively.
“The experience thus far has been so positive that I hope to see it continue in future years,” says Weiser, who shares another familial connection to the show: she is a third cousin of the late Zero Mostel, who originated the role of Tevye on Broadway.
Weiser sees the theater program as an integral part of the JCC’s purpose. “Theater is wonderful both for content and experience,” she says. “It is an effective medium to bring ideas to the forefront and engage the emotions – definite goals of any community center. Experientially, theater brings people together much in the way a sports team does, [which is] again aligned with the mission of the community-center concept.”
Cast members have been exuberant about the experience.
“Although I’ve been singing and performing with a Sweet Adelines chorus for the past 10 years and love it, I’ve also wanted to get back into musical theater for a while now,” says Jen Ludgin, who is playing Golda. “When I heard the JCC was doing a show that included adults, I just thought that doing it at a place that I’m so comfortable with would be the perfect jump back into this world.”
Carol Rosenberg is in her late 50s and plays Yente. “I have never done anything like this before,” she says. “Honestly, [just] auditioning for ‘Fiddler’ was on my bucket list; actually being in it was not. I never thought I would be chosen. Even as I left the call-back audition, I thought, at best, I might get a part as an anonymous villager. Carolyn is a phenom. I am having a fabulous time.”
Michael Isko, another 50-something, plays Lazar Wolf. “What a treat it is to work with skillful professionals, Carolyn Weiser and Sean Pallatroni, and to perform a show, both familiar and meaningful, with a lovely group of intergenerational performers,” he says. “It is a happy time.”
Grandma Tzeitel is played by Bonnie Weiner, who is in her early 70s – and proud of her status as the show’s oldest cast member.
“The last time I performed was as the mayor of Munchkin City in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in the 4th grade in Brooklyn, New York,” she says. “What a treat it is to work with such a fantastic professional, Carolyn Weiser. She is patient, understanding, and a terrific teacher. The young people in the show are marvelous and we all seem to blend together. It’s been great.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” will be presented Thursday, Dec. 3, Saturday, Dec. 5, Thursday, Dec. 10, and Saturday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. At the Mandell JCC, Zachs Campus, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. For ticket information: (860) 231-6316, www.mandelljcc.org.