Mike Huelsmann knows a thing or two — or five — about tradition.
He will take on the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” for the fifth time this weekend in the Looking Glass Playhouse production of the popular musical. His first time was to kick off the Clinton County Showcase in Breese in 1991. Then it was the Looking Glass in 1993, 2001 back in Breese, and in 2010 with Curtain’s Up Theater in Edwardsville.
Has Mike’s Tevye changed over the years.?
“Oh yeah. I used to put gray in my beard,” said Mike, 52, of Breese. “I don’t have to do that anymore. ... Tevye is such an iconic character you really can’t change him without changing what he’s all about.”
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Yes, the beard is real.
“I first grew a beard when I was playing with a country rock band in the ’80s. Now I don’t like to shave and my wife seems to like it, so I keep it.”
“Fiddler on the Roof” opens tonight and continues through Sunday and May 12-15.
The story centers on Tevye, a poor dairyman and the father of five daughters in the little Russian village of Anatevka in 1905. His three strong-willed older daughters wish to marry for love, and each one’s choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of his Jewish faith and culture — and conflicts the edict of the Tsar that evicts the Jews from their village.
It features such classic Broadway songs as “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Matchmaker” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”
“Mike Huelsmann was born to play Tevye,” said director Glenn Saltamachia, who also directed him in the Curtain’s Up production of “Fiddler.” “He has the look. The booming voice. He is the perfect Tevye.”
“The whole cast is very talented,” said Mike, who works for the Breese Journal Publishing Co. “It’s more mature in age than other ‘Fiddler’ casts I have worked with. Usually, not all are the proper age for the characters. Now I’m not playing Tevye to a college or high school kid playing the rabbi.”
It shows in the talent level.
“The vocals are very good on every song. The harmonies don’t get lost in the show.”
The cast includes Anne Hunter as Golde, Tevye’s sharp-tongued wife; Reagan Deschaine, Sarah Ratcliff and Kira Averett, as Tevye’s three oldest daughers, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava; Michael Ezell as Motel, a poor but hardworking tailor who marries Tzeitel; Colin Dowd as Perchik, a scholar and Bolshevik revolutionary who falls in love with Hodel; Kole Schlich as Fyedka, a Christian man who loves Chava; Jodi Stockton as Yente, the village matchmaker; Bryan Bowman as the Rabbi; Dan Stockton as Lazar Wolff, the wealthy village butcher; Chris Wilson as Grandma, Golde’s dead grandmother, and Carol Hodson as Fruma Sarah, the ghostly depiction of the butcher’s late wife, both in Tevye’s nightmare; and Alyssa Pryzgoda as The Fiddler.
“I was absolutely astounded at auditions when such a musically talented group showed up,” Glenn said. “They fit the characters so well ... they’re energetic ... the perfect ‘Fiddler’ cast.”
Mike didn’t want to single anybody out, but “The guys doing the bottle dance deserve a big hand. They have worked really hard to make sure they don’t drop the bottles.”
Mikes’ favorite part of the show is the Chava sequence.
“His third daughter marries a Catholic, so she is dead to the family. Tevye is all broken up and there’s a little dance with that, which is really touching. I love doing it.”
Glenn described two favorite scenes.
“One is when the family gets together to sing ‘The Sabbath Prayer.’ It’s hauntingly beautiful and is done in candlelight. Very touching.
“There are lots of great scenes, but one that always gets to me is when Tevye says goodbye to his daughter Hodel. She is going to Siberia to be with the man she loves and they know they will never see each other again as she sings ‘Far From the Home I Love.’
“As Tevye turns to leave, he says to God, ‘Take care of her and see that she dresses warmly.’ I’ve seen it a hundred times and it always brings a tear to my eye.”
The staging was difficult on the tight Looking Glass stage, Glenn said.
“There are a lot of places — inside Tevye’s house, outside, the train station ... Christy Luster did a brilliant job designing the set. It’s done on triangular units with thee different scenes on each.”
Various combinations create different scenes, along with furniture and set props.
“It’s really theater of the mind. We set an idea and let the audience go there. It works very well.”
Mike hopes the audience is moved by the show.
“Even though it’s set in 1905 Russia, it’s a timeless show,” he said. “It’s about how different societies conflict and we are not tolerant of each other’s differences. It’s about putting tradition in front of our humanity.”
Most of all, Glenn wants the audience to be entertained.
“From the very first note, we try to capture their attention and don’t let go till the end. I hope they are humming ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ as they leave.”
And, he hopes they get the point.
“It speaks to people being persecuted for their religious beliefs,” he said. “which is never far from the news these days.”
At a glance
Here’s what you need to know about ‘Fiddler on the Roof’:
- When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and May 12-14; and 2 p.m. Sunday and May 15.
- Where: Looking Glass Playhouse, 301 W. St. Louis St., Lebanon
- Tickets: $10-$12, with discounts for Looking Glass members, students, senior citizens and military personnel with ID. Call 618-537-4962 or go to www.lookingglassplayhouse.com