Fiddler on the Roof

Tony and the PAMTAs: a producer’s big week

Corey Brunish races from "Man of La Mancha" to Monday's PAMTA musical-theater awards to Broadway for next Monday's Tonys as a nominee

It’s a busy week even for Corey Brunish, one of the busiest guys in Portland show biz.

  • On Sunday he gives his final performance in Lakewood Theatre’s hit revival of Man of La Mancha, leaving the show a week early to meet some big-time previous commitments. (“Corey Brunish, as the grand tall obelisk of the duke and Dr. Carrasco,” performs the villains “with malevolent dignity,” Christa Morletti McIntyre writes in her ArtsWatch review of La Mancha).
  • On Monday evening he heads to the Winningstad Theatre for this year’s PAMTA musical-theater awards, which were his brainchild and remain in many ways pretty much his baby. This season’s top-show nominees include Falsettos, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Snow White, and Lakewood’s Man of La Mancha (Brunish himself is not a nominee). See the complete list of nominees below.
  • Then he packs his bags and heads to his other home, near Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, to get ready for next Sunday’s Tony Awards, where one of his shows as a producer, Fiddler on the Roof, is up for the Tony for best revival of a musical. He’s won a Tony in the same category twice before, for Porgy and Bess in 2012 and Pippin in 2013.

A few days ago Brunish took time for a juice break at a Southeast Portland coffee shop to talk about the PAMTAs, the Tonys, and how he got from here to there.

"Falsettos" at Live On Stage: a PAMTA best-production nominee.

Norman Bandersnatch Wilson and Claire Rigsby in “Falsettos” at Live On Stage: a PAMTA best-production nominee. Photo: Gary Norman

The Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards are entering their ninth year, and what began as a protest movement against the larger and longer-established Drammy Awards has evolved into a community celebration that’s also a pretty entertaining event. As ArtsWatch reported after last year’s gala, “A funny thing happened on the way to the grand wrap-up of the PAMTAs: a helluva show broke out. … for all the suspense about who the winners would be, the hardware almost played second fiddle to the show itself, which for two hours and forty-five minutes was pretty much dazzle-dazzle spectacular. Who would’ve guessed that an awards ceremony could actually be entertaining?”


PAMTAs: a little song and dance

Portland Center Stage scores big at musical-theater awards with 'Fiddler,' 'Lizzie'; 'Zombie' and 'Piazza' also take home hardware

The enduring and still radical classic Fiddler on the Roof led the parade Monday night at the seventh annual Portland Area Musical Theater Awards, scoring wins in six categories, including best production, actor (David Studwell as Tevye the milkman), and director (Chris Coleman). Center Stage dominated the evening, taking three more awards for its current Lizzie Borden rock musical, Lizzie, including outstanding song (House of Borden), score, and orchestrations.

David Studwell took top actor honors for his Tevye in best-production winner "Fiddler on the Roof." Photo: Patrick Weishampel

David Studwell took top actor honors for his Tevye in best-production winner “Fiddler on the Roof.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Portland Playhouse’s The Light in the Piazza, which beat out Fiddler for best musical production just two weeks ago at the larger Drammy Awards, took four wins in three categories, including a tie for best actress for Meredith Kaye Clark and Susannah Mars. And Oregon Children’s Theater’s sweet little high school comedy Zombie in Love, another multiple winner at the Drammys, won for best original musical and best performance by a young actor (the rubber-limbed zombie in question, Blake Peebles). Peebles tied with his Zombie costar, Madison Wray, who won for her starring role in OCT’s Fancy Nancy.

A crowd of about 250 settled into downtown’s Dolores Winningstad Theatre for the ceremony, a swift and generally entertaining affair that lasted a little longer than two hours – a veritable 40-yard dash compared to the marathon Tonys and Oscars. Master of ceremonies was the wryly funny actor Darius Pierce, who kept things clipping with a finely calibrated internal stopwatch and an ear for improvisational comedy to go along with his prepared jokes. He noted drily that next year’s PAMTA winner for sound design (Monday night’s went to Brian Moen for Stumptown Stage’s Ain’t Misbehavin’) will make eight in eight years – or one more than the Tonys, which began naming a sound winner just seven years ago and lately announced to considerable protest its plans to drop the category – will have awarded in its entire existence.

Young performer co-winner Blake Peebles in original musical winner "Zombie in Love." Photo: Owen Carey

Young performer co-winner Blake Peebles in original musical winner “Zombie in Love.” Photo: Owen Carey

The mood at the ceremony was convivial and upbeat, lifted by performances of several songs from nominated shows and the smooth onstage accompaniment of a lightly jazzy trio: pianist Reece Marshburn, drummer Ken Ollis, and acoustic bassist Brett McConnell. Singer Julianne Johnson brought the house down with a bluesy, gospelly, sometimes scatted performance of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, egging the trio on playfully as she shifted tempos.

But the festivities also carried a bit of an unnerving echo underneath. Many winners weren’t on hand to accept their statues, an MIA pattern that dampened the fun. It was especially notable when Portland Center Stage’s name kept being announced. Company manager Don Mason, who once wrote an entertaining essay about the pleasures of being a perennial bit player, filled in at, well, center stage, popping up from his front-row seat in category after category to accept the company’s hardware.  It became a running gag, and he milked it well, at one point promising all of the PAMTA winners that if they brought their statues to the theater, he’d see they got free tickets to Lizzie. Toward the end, under prompting from the audience, he expanded the offer to all of the nominees, too – and joked about whether he’d still have a job in the morning.

Actress co-winners Merideth Kaye Clark (left) and Susannah Mars in "The Light in the Piazza." Photo: Brud Giles

Actress co-winners Merideth Kaye Clark (left) and Susannah Mars in “The Light in the Piazza.” Photo: Brud Giles

The PAMTAs began seven years ago partly to celebrate the achievements of musical theater specifically and partly as a response to the broader-based Drammy Awards, which some musical-theater people felt didn’t pay sufficient attention to musicals. The makeup and methods of the awards are somewhat secretive, although Portland performer and Broadway producer Corey Brunish is acknowledged as their driving force. “The [voting] members are anonymous, even to one another,” PAMTA’s website says. “This way members cannot be influenced by performers, designers, theatre companies or even each other. Opinions cannot be swayed at meetings because there are none. Voting is done by secret ballot. All members see all productions to the degree that it is humanly possible. Members purchase their tickets. No member of the committee is active in the theatre community.”

Monday evening, the crowd was there to celebrate. As Emily Sahler put it after bounding onstage with costar Lisamarie Harrison to accept the best-ensemble award for Broadway Rose’s The Bikinis: “Unbridled joy and love is valid, and we need lots of it.”

PAMTA winners are listed below. You can see the list of nominees (five in each category) here.



Fiddler on the Roof, Portland Center Stage



Zombie in Love, Oregon Children’s Theatre



Chris Coleman, Fiddler on the Roof, Portland Center Stage



Meredith Kaye Clark, The Light in the Piazza, Portland Playhouse

Susannah Mars, The Light in the Piazza, Portland Playhouse



David Studwell, Fiddler on the Roof, Portland Center Stage



Pam Mahon, Beauty and the Beast, Pixie Dust Productions



Burl Ross, Spamalot, Lakewood Theatre

Ben Farmer, Spamalot, Lakewood Theatre



The Bikinis, Broadway Rose



Blake Peebles, Zombie in Love, Oregon Children’s Theatre

Madison Wray, Fancy Nancy, Oregon Children’s Theatre



Alan Stevens Hewitt, Tim Maner, Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Lizzie, Portland Center Stage



House of Borden, Alan Stevens Hewitt, Tim Maner, Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Lizzie, Portland Center Stage



Eric Nordin, The Light in the Piazza, Portland Playhouse



Alan Stevens Hewitt, Lizzie, Portland Center Stage



Wes Hanson, Kiss Me Kate, Clackamas Repertory Theatre



Allison Dawe, The Light in the Piazza, Portland Playhouse



G.W. Mercier, Fiddler on the Roof, Portland Center Stage



Ann Wrightson, Fiddler on the Roof, Portland Center Stage



Brian Moen, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stumptown Strages



Julia McNamara, Fiddler on the Roof, Portland Center Stage



Eric Little

John Quesenberry

Drew Harper

Rich man, poor man: a ‘Fiddler’ for yesterday and today

Portland Center Stage reclaims the urgency in a familiar musical about "us" versus "them"

The fabulous bottle dance. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The fabulous bottle dance. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

A friend who is not the biggest opera or classical ballet fan on the face of the planet refers with puckish disdain to the musical stage’s seemingly unending enthusiasm for “happy peasants.” I’m not sure what he thinks of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the great Broadway musical based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories of life in the Jewish quarter of a Russian village in the late 1900s and early years of the 20th century. But maybe, in Anatevka’s case, he makes an exception. After all, the peasants in “Fiddler” aren’t just colorful patches of exotic background. They’re what the whole shebang’s about.

The peasants of this shabby little town are certainly happy, in an ingrown sense, feasting and working and loving and drinking and squabbling like there’s no place else on Earth, at least that matters. Left to their own devices, they could go on like this forever.

They are not, of course, left to their own devices. And, with a malevolent world crashing in on them, their happiness turns to despair, heartbreak, and exile. Yet even as he packs the remains of his family for a forced and uncertain journey to America, Tevye the milkman exudes a heavy-muscled and deeply ingrained endurance that is wedded to – well, not happiness, exactly, but a darkly buoyant and sustaining, and very Jewish, humor. Tevye is an optimist in spite of himself, and certainly in spite of the evidence of the world he’s forced to live in. And that optimism, which was both a liberalizing and a liberating force, helped lighten the story’s heavy load and turn “Fiddler” into one of the biggest-selling shows in Broadway history.

When “Fiddler” debuted in 1964, memories of World War II were still fresh in much of the audiences’ minds. So was the establishment of Israel. The horror of the Nazis’ “final solution” still ran deep in the collective psyche – the realization of just how far down a dark and terrible path a supposedly civilized culture can go when it allows its prejudices to be fully unleashed. The story of “Fiddler” brought home to a sensitized American public that had only recently begun to break out of its own isolationism (and that was struggling mightily, in the midst of the civil rights movement, with its own prejudices) that Hitler was an aberration only in degree: anti-Semitism was a centuries-long plague; the pogroms of eastern Europe were part of a pattern.

David Studwell as Tevye. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

David Studwell as Tevye. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The core of the musical’s story, Tevye’s great struggle, was how to define “us” as opposed to “them”: can a tight-knit group be so embracing as it rolls with the times that it loses its identity? “Fiddler” was one of a handful of works from Broadway’s postwar golden age – “South Pacific” and “West Side Story” were others – that fused song and dance with contemplations on the corrosive impact of ethnic and cultural suspicion. Their viewpoints were earnestly, and even bravely, liberal: the townsfolk of “Fiddler” may seem quaint and comic, but deep down they’re just like “us” (whoever “we” happen to be). Real differences were papered over, somewhat innocently, in an attempt to embrace the essential oneness of us all. The harder task, of course, is to embrace the other when the differences seem substantive – when, for instance, devout Christians and Jews and Muslims and unbelievers share the same territory and must learn somehow to get along with one another.

That’s one of the reasons I very much like Portland Center Stage’s new production of “Fiddler,” which opened Friday night on the Main Stage of the Gerding Theater at the Armory. Yes, the cast is excellent, and the design’s intriguing, and director Chris Coleman, a man with a deep feeling for the pleasures and possibilities of the musical theater, keeps the long story clipping at a brisk and rhythmic pace.

But in subtle ways, this “Fiddler” also emphasizes the differences, as well as the similarities, of life in Anatevka from our own. One way is simply emphasizing the town’s inwardness by paying attention to its inhabitants’ speech patterns: the clipped, ever so slightly disorienting pronunciations that the cast masters under the tutelage of the fine dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis. Another is through the trimmed-down orchestral accompaniment. Rick Lewis leads just nine players in the pit, and the sound they produce, while ample to fill the auditorium, is also sharper and janglier and more insistent than the familiar lush Broadway-orchestra sound. It’s tighter, more folkish, more ethnic – not klezmer, but a sound that suggests a distinct community. It’s an expression of a group that is happily apart, and would just as soon keep to its own ways, thank you very much.

David Studwell is a thoroughly satisfying Tevye, hitting all the high notes of an iconically familiar role but finding his own path into Tevye’s character. His discussions with God are offhand, half-ironic, more of a running comic monologue than a dialogue, and he often sidles into his speeches, with a casual, almost accidental-sounding beginning that gains full force as he continues. As Studwell plays him, Tevye really is the center of his community, both blessed and cursed with the ability to see another point of view. Studwell and the talented Susannah Mars as Golde, Tevye’s arranged-marriage wife of 25 years, have a nice sympatico and well-matched voices; this “Fiddler” is on the whole very well sung.

Among a large and capable cast of 28, a few others also stand out. Comic whiz Sharonlee McLean is a sharp-tongued riot in the dual roles of prattling matchmaker Yente and shrieking-nightmare Grandma Tzeitel (kudos, too, to the tech crew for Tzeitel’s rolling tower of power). Raymond Jaramillo McLeod is a big bear of a Lazar Wolf, the butcher, with a booming voice to match. Zachary Prince brings a nice shot of impatient energy to Perchik, the student/revolutionary who winds up with Tevye’s daughter Hodel (Sarah Stevens) in Siberia. Corey Brunish is dryly, shruggingly effective as the constable who carries out the czar’s cleansing orders so apologetically and clinically: he gives a shuddering foretaste of what the phrase “only following orders” would come to mean in Jewish history. And Tylor Neist, a pretty fine fiddler, wanders through the action like an energizing apparition.

Susannah Mars, center, as Golde. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Susannah Mars, center, as Golde. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Director Coleman and Kent Zimmerman, who reproduced Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, have made sure the set pieces (think bottle dance) have plenty of room to shine. And G.W. Mercier’s set, which breaks from the Chagall-inspired angles and colors of so many “Fiddler”s, is both epic and minimal, dominated by five towering wood-clad doors that swing open and shut as the action demands. I like the touch of sawdust on the floor – authentic for the bar scenes, and great for kicking up a storm during the dances.

Some stories are so familiar, such embedded parts of our cultural literacy, that they risk losing their potency: we almost overlook them. “Fiddler” is one of them, and in a time of intense sectarian and religious struggles in the Middle East and elsewhere (let alone the red-and-blue cultural battlefield of our own increasingly polarized country), Center Stage’s production has gone a good way toward restoring a share of its urgency. In a way, “Fiddler” seems like an Ur-story, filled with other possible plays that might spring from it, although to my knowledge they haven’t. Lazar in Chicago. Motel and Tzeitel in the Garment District. The Sweet Revolution of Perchik and Hodel. Chava and Fyedka: The Trials of Forbidden Love. It’s a tribute to Aleichem’s stories and Joseph Stein’s book for the musical (the splendid songs, in case you’ve forgotten, are by Jerry Bock, and the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) that all of these characters still seem real, if maybe a little exaggerated, and that we wonder what comes next in their lives: their stories seem unfinished. In the meantime – miracle of miracles – this lovely story’s unfolding right here and now.


Portland Center Stage’s “Fiddler on the Roof” continues daily except Mondays through October 27. Check here for schedule and ticket information.


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