Tony Award nominee guest directs ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Students run through a dress rehearsal. Photo by Bailey Hovland.

In the Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre, the world of Moorhead fades away and is transformed into the small Russian village of Anatevka in 1905, where a man named Tevye and his five daughters live. Unassuming at first, it sets the stage for traditions to be challenged and lives to be changed.

Concordia Theatre will present Joseph Stein’s classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” from Nov. 9-11 as well as Nov. 16-19, with shows at 8 p.m. and one show at 2 p.m. on Nov. 19. It is guest directed by Broadway lyricist Bill Russell, best known for the stage musicals “Elegies for Angels,” “Punks and Raging Queens,” and “Side Show,” which was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1998.

Russell was approached by Concordia faculty at a theatre workshop in South Dakota last year, and happily accepted the invitation to guest direct. This is the first time in nearly 20 years that Concordia Theatre has hosted a guest director, and the uniqueness of the opportunity is not lost on them.

David Wintersteen, chair of Concordia’s theatre department and producer for “Fiddler,” explains that one of the greatest benefits to hosting a guest director is that the students gain a wider understanding of the theatre world outside of Concordia.

“It’s really great to be able to work with a pro like Bill,” Wintersteen said. “One of the best parts about having him here is that students are able to have direct contact with somebody with that professional perspective.”

Though the theatre program at Concordia is small in size, it is strong and continues to grow through new challenges and opportunities.

“In any small program, anytime you have new voices coming in, I think that helps strengthen the program. It changes things for students, to know they’re on the inside of something like this. They’re being pushed in a different way,” Wintersteen said.

First-year student Marin Wilts, who plays the role of Tzeitel in “Fiddler,” attests to the positive experience of working with Russell, despite her initial hesitations.

“My first impression was that he was going to be very tough and right down to business. But that is not at all what he is like in rehearsals. He’s funny, he’s charismatic. He is so humble about what he has done, and that is something that I really look up to,” she said.

Russell has equally enjoyed working with the students and the new experience that it brings. Though he frequently directs college productions, he always has fun directing on a different level than the professional stage.

“It’s really fun to work with college students, especially when they’re dedicated like they are here,” Russell said. “I get to do really big productions, which you just can’t do professionally because it’s so outrageously expensive. So that’s really fun.”

In a professional setting, though the overall process is similar, the details and scale are quite different. Rarely does Russell have the opportunity to rehearse onstage with the actors, and so this opportunity is special for him.

“I never get to be onstage to rehearse. I’m usually in a rehearsal studio until the day before tech, when I get one spacing rehearsal onstage. And here I’ve been able to do all my rehearsals onstage, which is really a gift. I love it,” he said.

“Fiddler on the Roof,” set in 1905 Imperial Russia, centers around the Jewish family of Tevye and his five daughters. As the world changes around them, Tevye struggles to hold on to his cultural and religious traditions, and must learn to live with the actions of his daughters who choose to stray from those traditions.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, all Concordia mainstage productions were chosen to center around the theme of religion. The 2017-18 season premiered with “Wittenberg,” is now showing “Fiddler on the Roof,” and will conclude with “Tartuffe.”

But what does a story set in 20th-century Russia have to do with Concordia and the world today? According to those involved, more than one would think.

“I think you can find a lot of connections to your life through this show. Bill does a fantastic job of bringing out the comedy, bringing out the happiness. That contrasts for when you break tradition, and breaking tradition and thinking outside of the box is very relevant. We’re really finding the gold moments in this show,” Wilts said.

Russell agreed, observing the timeliness of the production.

“I think it’s incredibly timely. We’re kind of in a cultural divide now, in this country. Also, everything changes at such warp speed, that people can barely keep up. This show is all about this change, these traditions being challenged, and how they have to adapt to these long-held beliefs being challenged by people they love,” he said.

Concordia students, alumni, faculty, and staff receive one free ticket. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for senior citizens and other students. Tickets can be bought or reserved at the Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre Box Office on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 12 p.m. until 4 p.m., or by contacting or (218) 299-3314.


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