By Julie Ann Madden
When Fiddler On The Roof musical opens at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 6 at the Akron Opera House, guests will be in for a real entertaining evening.
“Fiddler is a great musical suited for all ages,” said actress Colleen Westergard, who sang in the chorus the first time this musical was performed on the Akron Opera House stage in 1979 and now portrays the character, Yente the Matchmaker. “It’s a love story. A story about history.”
“It’s a good show,” said Missy Saathoff who plays a villager, Fruma Sarah. “There’s some seriousness, some comedy and love.”
“You get to have fun in it,” said Alisha Knapp, who also plays a villager, Grandma Tzeitel who comes back from the dead. This is the second production she’s played a grandmother — she debuted as a grandma in her high school’s “Bye Bye Birdie.”
The setting is the early 1900s with a father facing tradition changes in his life — kids getting married and leaving, said actor Kevin Linder who portrays the father, Tevye. His daughter is getting married to a Russian citizen which is forbidden in their culture so the father must decide to accept it or disown her.
Linder originally played Tevye when he was 18 years old, a senior at Manning High School, under the direction of his father, Gary Linder, who was the school’s Vocal Music director.
“At age 18, I had no life experiences to speak of,” said Linder. “I was 150 pounds and had no facial hair — I was the skinniest Tevye on record.”
“This time in a way, it will be easier because I’ve had some life experiences,” he said, explaining he’s about the age Tevye is in the play. “I can bring those experiences to the character now I didn’t have at 18.”
This is his third time as part of a Fiddler On The Roof production — the second was as Pit Orchestra
Director at North High School in 2005.
“I’ve always loved this show,” said Linder, adding when he was a teenager his grandmother gave him the sound-track as a gift. “I don’t know why but I really liked it so it’s neat to get to do it. It’s even neater now that I’m more Tevye’s age.”
“Tevye’s longing for days past, simpler times,” said Linder. “I think about that all the time. It just has more resonance with me this time.”
This will be the second time since high school that Linder has performed on stage.
“I play trumpet, play in bands but I hope to do more acting,” said Linder, who starred in the Birdie & Carol Harris School of Performing Arts’ 2016 production, “Song of Singapore.”
There are 11 members of the Birdie Harris family in this cast, and most of the cast are “returnees” to the Akron Opera House stage.
Jon Harris, whose first acting was as Christopher Robinson in Winnie the Pooh when he was 10 or 11, is portraying a widower/butcher named Lazar Wolf who’s quite lonesome. Jon has played many roles over the years since the late Akron teacher Richard Jacobs convinced his students and the Akron community to restore the now 111-year-old opera house and begin holding productions in it.
“We’re really fortunate to have so many kids involved as we do because that’s what is going to keep this place going,” said Lisa.
“We’ve been really lucky over the years to have a school strong (Fine Arts) department that brings them up to the level they are ready to perform here.”
For instance, Melissa McKee played Annie in Akron-Westfield’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and did other children’s production but this is her “first grown-up acting” and she portrays Tzeitel.
“The main reason my wife, Lisa, and I are still involved, we think this is quite a facility for Akron,” said Jon. “To try and keep it alive. We’d hate to lose the historic presence of the opera house in Akron.”
It’s also a family tradition for the Harris family as their grandmother and mother played accompaniment for many productions throughout the years. In fact, Jon’s sister, Amy Linder, played the piano for the first “Fiddler On The Roof” when she was in eighth grade and now she’s co-directing it with Val Philips, the Akron-Westfield drama teacher.
“I love doing community theater because I love seeing where the rehearsals go from the very beginning where it’s rough,” said Philips, “and people don’t have a concept yet of what they’re doing to the end product where it’s a very polished show.”
“I also love working in the Arts with people who have so much talent in both music and the performing field,” she said. “The theater gives me energy. As I walk up the stairs to the opera house, it doesn’t matter what has been going on in the day or how tired I am — there’s a feeling of energy as I reach the top of those stairs.”
After performing in children’s productions, Philips didn’t act during high school because she was one of more than 3,000 students. However, as soon as she moved to Akron in 1977, she participated in Oklahoma! and to date, her favorites have been “Anything Goes,” “Diary of Anne Frank,” Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “Godspell.”
Although Jon’s wife, Lisa, was in high school plays, she didn’t return to acting until after they married some 30 years ago.
“I was in high school — a wallflower, chorus member,” said Lisa, who is Golde, Tevye’s wife. “Those people are just as important as leads because it takes minor characters, chorus members, backstage hands, the pit orchestra — all that for a successful production.”
“I’ve fallen in love with the Opera House,” said Lisa. “I’m super proud of the quality of productions we’ve had over the years. You always see quality shows at the Opera House.”
“It’s really impressive how much talent there is in this small community,” said Michael Harris, son of Jon and Lisa. He, too, began acting as a youngster in “Pocahontas.” As soon as he returned from college, he returned to the stage.
Calling himself an introvert, “What I like about acting is that I have a stage where I can (be an extrovert). I’m more comfortable doing that on stage than anywhere else.”
Michael’s character is Perchik, a young man just out of college who wants to share the “outside world” with “traditional” villagers.
“Come (see Fiddler On The Roof),” said Knapp.
“There’s only so much TV you can watch,” said Linder. “There is really something about a live show.”
“Chances are you’ll know most of the people on stage,” said Michael.
“Take a short drive to support local productions, find out what there is to see in town as it’s important for us to keep this place alive,” said Jon.
“There’s not a lot of places this size who have the foresight to renovate a theater, reopen it and keep it going (for more 40 years now),” said Kevin. “It’s a very special place to this town.”