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Traditional values: Tony-nominated playwright returns to comedy of 'Fiddler on the Roof'

MOORHEAD--By his own account, Bill Russell was "obsessed" with Jewish culture as a teenager and pored over the 1958 Leon Uris book "Exodus," about the founding of Israel.

Nick Brandt as Tevye introduces his daughters played by (from left to right) Marin Wilts, Jill Kadrmas, Kayli McIntyre, Linka Wintersteen and Kate Folkman in a scene from Concordia College's "Fiddler on the Roof". John Lamb / The Forum
Nick Brandt as Tevye introduces his daughters played by (from left to right) Marin Wilts, Jill Kadrmas, Kayli McIntyre, Linka Wintersteen and Kate Folkman in a scene from Concordia College's "Fiddler on the Roof". John Lamb / The Forum

MOORHEAD-By his own account, Bill Russell was "obsessed" with Jewish culture as a teenager and pored over the 1958 Leon Uris book "Exodus," about the founding of Israel.

Russell wasn't Jewish and growing up in Spearfish, S.D., he didn't even have interactions with Jews until he moved to New York.

After the move he discovered a revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" being staged and took regular trips to see the musical.

Over the years he's seen the work numerous times. He's also built his own career as a successful writer of musicals, earning three Tony nominations for the 1997 hit "Side Show".

Still, when Concordia College asked if he would move to Fargo-Moorhead for six weeks to direct the staging of "Fiddler," he jumped at the chance.

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The two-weekend run of the classic starts tonight and Russell has one goal: bring the funny back to "Fiddler".

He recalls seeing the 2016 Broadway revival of the show and it leaving him feeling empty.

"It really shortchanged the comedy, which is a big part of it. I wanted to get back to the comedy," he said recently at the Moorhead Moxie Java.

He points out that the original Broadway cast featured comedians Zero Mostel as Tevye and Bea Arthur as Yente, the matchmaker.

The story follows Tevye the milkman in a small, Jewish village in western Russian village in 1905. The father of five girls, he struggles with changes coming from inside and outside his family as the oldest three look for love and drift away from the traditions he abides by as the world marches on.

Some productions play heavy on the family drama, but Russell feels the show is really a musical comedy and wants to keep it light.

"The comedy offsets the tragedy," he said. "If you land the comedy, the serious stuff is richer and deeper."

Still, he doesn't want to play down the central theme of change, which he says is as timely now as when the work debuted in the mid-1960s.

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"The way the show portrays the changing of tradition is so rich to me," he said.

"In every line and in every character there is a joke and a tear," said Christian Boy, professor of theatre arts at Concordia. "That exists in every sentence of every moment of this play. And that's a survival technique."

Boy is the set designer on the play, his fourth round with the work, and he wanted this one to look a bit brighter.

"I didn't want to do another sad, sepia-toned 'Fiddler,'" Boy said.

He looked up the Chagall paintings that inspired the work and was struck by the blues used.

INFORUM-November-2017-picture-3797979.jpg
Josh Marcile-Roberts, David Schneck, Kade Davidson, Cade Bestland, Nick Brandt and Chris Cartwright dance in "Fiddler".

Boy and his colleague David Wintersteen met Russell a few years ago when they were working on summer stock productions at Black Hills Playhouse, near Russell's hometown of Spearfish and not far from Boy's native Sturgis.

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Russell didn't always have such fond experiences in rugged, western South Dakota. His musical "Side Show," about conjoined twins who became popular stage attractions in the 1930s, was fueled by his own feelings as an outcast, growing up gay.

"I felt like the biggest freak in the world," he said, adding that when he came out of the closet, his father didn't talk to him for three years.

His 1989 work, "Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens," a song cycle modeled after "Spoon River Anthology" and NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, was also inspired by his adolescence in South Dakota.

"A lot of those monologues are autobiographical in a way," he said.

His Concordia residency over the last five weeks has allowed him time to work on his next musical, reworking a project he started in 2005 that deals with same-sex marriage.

While the current political climate has colored the piece somewhat, he doesn't want to make it too topical because the work could quickly become too dated.

"There's so much discord and everything is changing at warp speed," he said. "Traditions being challenged seems really relevant now."

If You Go

What: "Fiddler on the Roof" When: 8 p.m., tonight - Saturday, Nov. 16 - 18 and 2 p.m. on Nov. 19

Where: Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre, Concordia College, Moorhead

Info: Tickets are $5 to $10, https://www.concordiacollege.edu , (218) 299.3314

Related Topics: EVENTSTHEATER
For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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