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Mesa Palms' 'Fiddler on the Roof' revisits and reminds

'Fiddler on the Roof' cast at The Palms dinner theater in Mesa AZ
'Fiddler on the Roof' cast at The Palms dinner theater in Mesa AZ
Tim Trumble

Sunday's excellent production of Fiddler on the Roof, currently playing at The Palms in Mesa, warmly encouraged its audience to celebrate today's holiday on a deeper level than we might otherwise. Yesterday, between the matinee and evening full houses, two of the show's cast members sat down to an interview at a table in the dinner theatre's lounge, talking about how the classic show stays relevant and fresh.

Bottle Dance in 'Fiddler on the Roof' in Mesa AZ
Tim Trumble

"Fiddler will always resonate with people because oppression is happening daily somewhere," said Stephen Turner, who puts his heart on his prayer shawl and his character's fears of confrontation on the line to play a love-struck, tradition-challenging Motel in the production. "We all want to be taken seriously and respected--about the color of our skin, about our profession, about our religion, about our sexuality--about who we are."

Just weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. received a Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence, including the inspirational 'I Have a Dream' speech, Broadway debuted this racial-tensioned gem that has also stood the test of time. When Fiddler on the Roof opened in 1964, spotlighting government-led violence against a peaceful group of its citizenry, it dared America to consider deeply the effects of our country's dangerously lively Civil Rights activities at the time.

The show is set in an early 1900s Russian village during an era when the czar was ousting Jews from their ancestral homes. The authorities barge in on Motel's wedding, overturning tables and assaulting guests for their crime of being Jewish. It's a tale of a different time period, but it shouted volumes to the riotous crowds and police brutality in America's own streets.

Playing the Rabbi presiding at Motel's wedding is Phoenix's own Bruce Laks, who brings an added layer of authenticity to the story. The first time he played the Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof, Laks was a young, pre-bar mitzvah Jewish boy in New York City. The rabbi of his boyhood synagogue leant Laks the robes that doubled for that brief time as his costume. Though Laks' last twenty years have been here in the Valley, the show's original message has remained a barometer for his personal life.

"It's about surviving, about maintaining the identity of a people and still staying true to yourself, " Laks said.

Along with shepherding touching moments and inviting introspection, the Mesa production is wonderfully entertaining. "In real life I'm not a very funny person, but give me a comic moment in a show, and I can usually knock it out of the park," said Laks about the scene in which the Rabbi blesses Motel's sewing machine.

"The power and energy in the wedding scene is my favorite," he also said.

"The 'Bottle Dance' [at the wedding celebration] really amazes the crowd," added Turner, who has played Motel 300+ times, including a national tour of Fiddler. "That no bottle has crashed or shattered in this show... is a miracle!" he laughed.

The delightful and sensitive cast (epitomized by the deafening emotion that Fiddler mime Kerry Lambert exudes) along with the smaller-than-they-sound, 3-person, talented pit continue their performances of Fiddler through the middle of February.

Check in on them for an inspiring reminder about how people can successfully change and acclimate in any environment, even the neighborhoods most upset with surrounding social upheaval.

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