A rite of summer takes place next week, with the annual Comox Valley Youth Music Centre production.
Never a group to shy away from a challenge, the production team of Lori Mazey, Lindsay Sterk and Shannon Tyrrell has set the bar high again this time, choosing to test their students’ capabilities with the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof.
“Fiddler on the Roof is a beautiful show with tremendous music, rousing dances and a story and characters that make you both laugh and cry,” said Mazey. “It also allows the ensemble a great deal to do – singing, dancing and helping create the world and story while also providing many terrific roles for male and female performers, singers, dancers, and actors.”
This will be the third season the three accomplished professionals have worked together as an artistic team. Mazey has directed the summer CYMC play every year since 2011. Choreographer Sterk stepped into a co-directing position in 2012 and invited Tyrrell to join them in 2014.
“Lindsay, whom I’ve known since our university days, asked if I would consider music directing Thoroughly Modern Millie – one of my all-time favourite shows – and I immediately said yes,” said Tyrrell. “The rest, as they say, is history!
“I love working with this group of such amazing directors, producers, managers, and students.”
Mazey’s history with the CYMC goes all the way back to her own formative years, when she performed in three shows, as a student. Now she’s on the other side of the production. She echoes the sentiments of her two colleagues when saying what brings her back every year.
“It is an incredible group,” she said. “It is so inspiring and rewarding to work with the dedicated and gifted artistic and production teams. And it is a true honour to work with this cast of young people who are so enthusiastic about coming together to learn to create, and to share wonderful stories with Comox Valley audiences.”
As the moniker suggests, the Comox Valley Youth Music Centre is all about the youth. Now in its 49th year, the camp brings together an international selection of youth actors/actresses for a high-pressure, all-encompassing drama camp.
A couple of days of auditions precede two weeks straight of 12-hour rehearsal days. The result is always stunning, but the process is never without its challenges.
“The casting process is very intense,” said Sterk. “It takes two full days to get it right. Typically, once we are finished our final call back, we end up staying up until one or two in the morning making final decisions on casting. This year in particular was incredibly hard as the level of ability of all the students was so high that it was a very intense decision-making process.”
One of the biggest challenges for the artistic team this year was ensuring the cast understood the culture surrounding the play.
“Fiddler on the Roof – 1905 – Russia – (is) very far away from where we live in time and place,” said Mazey. “Understanding the characters are Jewish, with specific traditions, customs, dances, and persecution from the outside is crucial.”
Even the casting of the play presented challenges for the team.
“There are always more female performers than males,” said Mazey. “We had to cut off registrations to female participants fairly early on this year and have had to work to recruit enough males. However, the participants we do have are fantastic!”
The music of Fiddler on the Roof is timeless, and as such, the team expects the majority of the audience to be intimately familiar with the score. That, in itself, provided difficulties. Everything has got to be perfect.
“The challenges in terms of the orchestra score this year are/were finding a mandolin player and an accordion player,” said Tyrrell. “These two instruments are what really give the show its klezmer feel. The latter turned out to be quite impossible; after reaching out to many, many accordion players from Campbell River down to Nanaimo, it seemed no one was available or quite up to the task of the challenging score.”
In the end, advancements in technology saved the day. The accordion sound coming from the pit will actually be a keyboard, on an accordion ‘setting.’
“We do have a mandolin player though,” said Tyrrell. “Otherwise, the music is fairly predictable. Most people have seen or at least heard the music from the show before, so there are no major surprises. I would say most of the musicians in the pit have played the score before.”
Choreography is always a challenge, and Fiddler is no different in that regard. While it is devoid of the fight scenes of West Side Story that tested Sterk’s imagination in 2015, there still are nuances.
“As with last year’s show, I would say the largest challenge for the show is living up to the legacy created by the original choreographer Jerome Robbins,” said Sterk. “I am using aspects of his choreography while making my own fresh choices.”
For everyone involved, the biggest challenge of all is the time frame. As opposed to a production with months of preparation, this entire show, from first audition to curtains rising, is less than three weeks.
Auditions began July 2. The play opens at the Sid Williams Theatre on July 19.
So, when does fatigue become a factor?
“Day 1,” said Mazey, only half joking. “The first day so much happens; we meet one another as a group, and then we get to know the skills of all the participants through several hours of auditions and some preliminary call-backs. At the end of the day we need to know who we are calling back for which roles. By the end of the next day we have the whole show cast. From then on we are rehearsing pretty much 12 hours a day.
“However, it is probably the second week that is the most tiring. That is when everyone is no longer fresh – but still a long ways off from things coming together enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. By the time we are running the show in the third week we start a tiny bit later, and the grind of so much learning and putting it all together is done.”
Mazey said one of the greatest achievements of the CYMC production each year is the set design. Fiddler on the Roof will be no different.
“Our set designer, Jay Crowder, is a genius. He brings out interesting viewpoints and themes from the show with the set and scenic designs while making sure that we can stage the show in a way that allows creative movement and a way to see the whole cast when all of them are on stage.
“Of course, Jay’s set designs – amazing as they are – are not easy to build, so we owe a great deal to the skilled team who built the challenging design. The set design also demands the other design elements to blend seamlessly and I have the utmost confidence in our props, costumes, wig, beard and make, and lighting designers.”
Fiddler on the Roof runs from July 19-23, with evening shows every day at 7:30 p.m. as well as a 2 p.m. matinee on July 23.
For ticket information, call 250-338-2430 (ext. 1), visit the Sid Williams Theatre box office (442 Cliffe Ave.), or go to sidwilliamstheatre.com