Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
Mist
70°
Mist
Hi 78° | Lo 55°

Amherst Leisure Services theater celebrates 20 years of musicals

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Louise Krieger, left, rehearses for the role of Golde with Becca Greene-Van-Horn, who plays Yente in Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater's production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Louise Krieger, left, rehearses for the role of Golde with Becca Greene-Van-Horn, who plays Yente in Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater's production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Mia Wurger will play Hodel, one of Tevye's daughters, in "Fiddler on the Roof."

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Mia Wurger will play Hodel, one of Tevye's daughters, in "Fiddler on the Roof." Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Mia Wurga, left, and Stephanie Craven sing together during a recent rehearsal for "Fiddler on the Roof."

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Mia Wurga, left, and Stephanie Craven sing together during a recent rehearsal for "Fiddler on the Roof." Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>"Fiddler on the Roof" director David Grout has directed two other ALSCT musicals. He says the success of the group's productions is due to their broad community reach.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    "Fiddler on the Roof" director David Grout has directed two other ALSCT musicals. He says the success of the group's productions is due to their broad community reach. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Louise Krieger, left, rehearses for the role of Golde with Becca Greene-Van-Horn, who plays Yente in Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater's production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Louise Krieger, left, rehearses for the role of Golde with Becca Greene-Van-Horn, who plays Yente in Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater's production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Louise Krieger, left, rehearses for the role of Golde with Becca Greene-Van-Horn, who plays Yente in Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater's production of "Fiddler on the Roof."
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Mia Wurger will play Hodel, one of Tevye's daughters, in "Fiddler on the Roof."
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Mia Wurga, left, and Stephanie Craven sing together during a recent rehearsal for "Fiddler on the Roof."
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>"Fiddler on the Roof" director David Grout has directed two other ALSCT musicals. He says the success of the group's productions is due to their broad community reach.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Louise Krieger, left, rehearses for the role of Golde with Becca Greene-Van-Horn, who plays Yente in Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater's production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

It was back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Barbara Rothenberg, then an Amherst elementary school teacher, looked around and thought that for all the Valley’s artistic offerings, something was missing.

“I felt our community could really use a great musical theater,” said Rothenberg, who’d grown up enjoying musicals with her family. “We had other community groups, like the Valley Light Opera, but we didn’t have anything that really provided an opportunity for adults and children to get involved in the kind of theater I’d grown up with.”

So Rothenberg and a few friends started talking to the staff at Amherst Leisure Services about what could be done. And tonight, they’ll celebrate the 20th anniversary of what they created, when “Fiddler on the Roof,” the latest musical produced by Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater (ALSCT), opens for a two-weekend run.

“Fiddler on the Roof” opens this evening at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It runs this weekend and next, with six evening performances and three matinees.

Rothenberg, the founder of the theater, says the emphasis has always been on the community aspect: All of the performers and almost all of the behind-the-scenes personnel are volunteers. Occasionally directors, set designers and others who put in particularly long hours — some of them professionals — have received small stipends, she notes, but those are the exceptions.

“Fiddler on the Roof” involves about 200 people — from cast members to set designers and builders to costume makers “to the people who serve as ushers or bake cookies for the intermission,” Rothenberg said.

The performances have long been sponsored by local businesses, individuals and other donors, she adds. “It really has been a community effort, and we’ve benefited from the start from the generosity of businesses and other donors, not just in Amherst but from other towns in the Valley,” Rothenberg said. Also, the Amherst Department of Public Works has provided space in its garage for set construction.

Perhaps more to the point, ALSCT’s goal has been to stage musicals that are accessible to the broadest range of performers and audience members alike, with roles for children, teens and adults — “Annie,” “Oliver!,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Secret Garden,” “Peter Pan.” Rothenberg says there’s a long tradition of parents and their children appearing in shows together.

One big family

That’s how Jim Pistrang, the production stage manager for “Fiddler,” initially was drawn to ALSCT. He and his son, David, then in fifth grade, appeared in “Peter Pan,” ALSCT’s third production, in January 1996 — dad as a pirate, son as a Lost Boy. Pistrang later began doing backstage work such as set building. In more recent years he has served as stage manager for the musicals.

“It’s like being part of an extended family,” he said of his years with the theater. “A lot of the same people work backstage each year, and even though the actors change, there are a lot of familiar faces overall.”

Dave Mullins, a retired math teacher who taught in Northampton and Amherst schools, jokes that he has more time these days to oversee set construction, which he’s been doing for about the last 10 years. His association with ALSCT began 18 years ago. He also serves as the chair of the theater’s board of directors.

“It’s a big commitment,” Mullins said of the set construction. The crew began work on “Fiddler” set last fall, and volunteers have put in approximately 1,500 hours of collective time. The set represents a small Jewish village, or shtetl, in Russia in the early 1900s.

“Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed this when I was still teaching,” Mullins said with a laugh. “But it’s all been worth it — it’s a great feeling to have so many people come together to put on a really good show.”

ALSCT also staged “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2001. Director Dave Grout says the 2013 version will have a different look, with a colorful set inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. The goal is “to capture the emotions and personalities of the characters,” he wrote in an email.

The musical’s story centers on a Jewish family in czarist Russia and the attempts of the father, Tevye, to maintain traditions in the midst of outside forces that are bringing change — including resistance from his three strong-willed daughters who have different ideas than their father about whom they want to marry.

Grout, who lives in Montague and teaches elementary school in Gill, directed two previous ALSCT musicals and also worked for a time for Amherst Leisure Services itself doing special education and event coordination. He says the success of the ALSCT productions is due to their broad community reach.

“It’s the hundreds of volunteers we have that work on the show every year,” he said. “Our success is because of the amount of community members who care about and love this theater. Without them, none of what you see onstage in January is possible.”

Talented alumni

In 20 years of staging musicals, ALSCT has also produced something else: talented graduates. There’s an impressive list of former child performers from the theater’s musicals who’ve gone on to build professional careers in the performing arts, from TV and theater to dance and music.

Consider Julie McNiven, who played a flower girl in “Oliver!” — the theater’s first production, in 1993 — and has now appeared in “Mad Men,” “Supernatural,” “Desperate Housewives” and several other TV shows.

Zoe Weizenbaum had a key role in “Peter Pan” in 2003 at age 11. Her performance caught the eye of film industry professionals, and she appeared in three movies, including 2005’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” produced by Stephen Spielberg.

Marisa Michelson played the lead in 1994’s “Annie” and today is a theater composer and music teacher whose musical “Tamar and the River” is slated to open in New York later this year.

And Brian Smolin, the lead actor from “Bye Bye Birdie” in 2000, has been in several off-Broadway productions and will appear in Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” next month in Los Angeles.

“We’re very proud to see so many of our young performers go on to careers in the arts. ... It’s nice to think we’re something of a launching pad, that the whole community has a role in doing this,” Rothenberg said. But, she added, while those performers’ later success speaks to the quality of the ALSCT shows, “That’s not why we put on these musicals. They are by the community and for the community. The people who you see up onstage are your dentist, your kid’s teacher, your neighbor’s son or daughter.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

ALSCT will present “Fiddler on the Roof” at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Performances are tonight, Friday and Saturday and Jan. 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday and Jan. 26 and 27 at 1 p.m. Tickets range from $10 to $18. Advance tickets may be purchased online at www.alsct.org/buy_tickets/index.html; by calling 259-3065; or at Bangs Community Center, 70 Boltwood Walk, Amherst; Jones Library Children’s Room, 43 Amity St. in Amherst; Monkey Business Children’s Clothing and Footwear, 328 College St. in Amherst.

There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.