Lyric Theatre expands Fiddler on the Roof to new audiences 

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Over half a century after its premiere on Broadway, the songs of Fiddler on the Roof are known around the world. From joyous “If I Were a Rich Man” to haunting “Sunrise, Sunset,” the musical focuses on the story of a Jewish milkman and his family’s troubles in rural Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

While the show certainly has its lighthearted moments, Fiddler on the Roof is, at its core, about the importance of family and tradition and the tensions surrounding them.

That is something Michael Baron could relate to when he took on directing duties for Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s production of the musical, which runs July 26-30 at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave.

“As a Jewish musical theater director, Fiddler on the Roof has always been high on my bucket list of shows to direct,” Baron said. “It’s a show I’ve seen countless times and whose music has been played at almost every Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah I’ve attended, including my own.”

That notability can be seen as both a benefit and a detriment. At this point, Fiddler on the Roof is essentially synonymous with musical theater.

Between being one of the most-performed high school musicals and having multiple Broadway productions and a film adaptation, Fiddler has become difficult to ignore.

For this reason, audiences have likely seen it in one form or another, making it continuously harder to make the material fresh again.

But in an interesting twist, Lyric Theatre’s version incorporates American Sign Language and two deaf actors portray love-struck characters Hodel and Perchik.

Two interpreters will be incorporated onstage to fully communicate to deaf viewers.

New opportunities

Baron planned on utilizing the performers after discussing it with a friend, deaf actor Christopher Tester.

After brainstorming how it might be possible and what Lyric would need to provide to make it happen, Baron said it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to showcase an underrepresented community.

“Our goal is to create a new village for Fiddler that is accessible to both hearing and deaf patrons,” he said. “I hope this collaboration reveals new insights by bringing hearing and deaf actors to the Lyric stage for the first time.”

And it certainly helps when performers are as passionate and talented as Sandra Mae Frank.

“I didn’t want to be an actress at first because it’s already tough enough to be an actor alone, but to be a deaf actress?” she said. “I just did it anyway by taking the risk and moving forward with theater because I eat, breathe and dream it. It’s my life. It’s who I am.”

Frank, who became deaf due to an unknown cause at the age of 3, doesn’t want to work in theater simply because it’s her passion.

She also wants to use it as a tool for educating others.

“Everyone has their own struggles in their own ways, but for me, as a deaf actress, I also have to be an advocate and teach others about my culture,” she said.

Frank uses ASL as her main form of communication, which comes with its own set of challenges.

“It gets hard once in a while being vulnerable and bringing my culture to the public, but it’s also very beautiful letting my culture be a part of the story,” she said. “And depending on what the context is about, it brings more depth to a story by adding a different perspective from a deaf character than how it’d usually be done if performed by a hearing actor.”

Frank certainly thinks the addition of ASL to the story of Fiddler on the Roof makes perfect sense.

In the musical, Hodel is the intelligent and free-spirited 17-year-old daughter of main character Tevye.

Over the course of the story, she falls in love with Perchik, a scholar and Bolshevik revolutionary who is exiled to Siberia.

“I love that Hodel and Perchik are deaf, and it makes total sense,” Frank said. “Hodel resisted Perchik at first because of tradition, but to me, adding the deafness to the character gives it more purpose. She’s so hesitant, but she sees this handsome, deaf stranger, and it stirs up these feelings.”

Elaborate plans

With only two weeks from the beginning of rehearsals to opening night, Lyric Theatre hopes to put on one of the biggest and most ambitious productions of Fiddler on the Roof.

Its actors and production staff have certainly put in the work. Baron notes the planning for the show started nearly a year in advance, coordinating everything from casting across the nation to meetings with the choreographer and music director.

“The process to create this show has many facets,” he said. “From collaborating with scenic, costume, lighting, props and sound designers to create a wholly original production based on Jewish folk art built here in Oklahoma, consulting experts like Rabbi Vered Harris of Temple B’nai Israel, and so much more.”

But even with flashy musical numbers and elaborate sets, Frank and Baron agree the heart of the show lies in the more restrained and emotional moments.

Fiddler is about the sometimes difficult balance between tradition, religion and family, which is always something audiences can relate to,” Baron said. “The fact that it uses such moving music that evokes emotion from the actors and audience makes it a special evening of theater always worth revisiting.”

Frank echoed that sentiment and said she hopes audiences leave the show filled with a new appreciation for the musical.

“I hope they feel a sense of joy and that no matter where you are in life or what defines you, family is where your home is and where you’ll find love,” she said.

Print headline: Striking staging, Lyric Theatre’s new production of Fiddler on the Roof tells the story with a unique perspective.

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Keaton Bell

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