When the North Riverside Players raise the curtain on Fiddler on the Roof on April 26, it will mark the 23rd anniversary of an organization right out of Mayberry — a village-sponsored, all-volunteer community theater troupe that twice a year fires up its “Hey, gang, let’s put on a show!” spirit to bring a little Broadway glamor to a small-town gymnasium.
That the troupe exists at all is notable. If there are other village-sponsored community theater groups in the Chicago area, there aren’t very many.
“We have a unique situation,” says Sue Frampton, recreation director for the village of North Riverside.
It also survived the economic downturn after 2008 that forced North Riverside to trim staff and cut many programs that could be considered extras, like the July 4 parade and other large-scale events.
When the village board last spring began making noises about trimming the theater troupe’s output to perhaps one production a year, they took note and pledged to work even harder to make it a cost-neutral item in the village budget.
“We were attuned to the fact that the village was looking to cut costs everywhere,” said Al Meyer, vice president of the North Riverside Players board of directors and its primary producer. “We said, guys, we better stick to the program and make money. This is the wrong time for a loss. Our board got the message.”
The result was a return to the troupe’s traditional reliance on Broadway blockbusters. Last spring — the spring event is the bigger production of the two each year — they staged Guys and Dolls, which last played in North Riverside in 1997. This year, it’s Fiddler on the Roof, which was last seen locally in 2001.
Those kinds of productions are the legacy of the troupe’s founders John and Kathy Strelecky, since retired, who pitched the idea of village-sponsored community theater to the recreation department in 1991.
That first year, the group produced Damn Yankees — Meyer had a featured role in that production — and followed that up with Hello Dolly, Anything Goes, The Music Man and other Broadway classics.
“That’s our heritage,” said Meyer. “John loved the scale of big sets and bright costumes, and we do that to this day.”
Fiddler on the Roof has a cast of 47. To house the set and the large cast, the production crew has created a “thrust stage,” which extends 20 feet from the edge of the stage and allows for seating on three sides.
In addition to the large cast, music for shows in North Riverside comes not from a CD recording but a full orchestra. For Guys and Dolls, the pit contained 18 musicians; Fiddler on the Roof employs 10 musicians, including one who doubles as the eponymous “fiddler.”
The musical is directed by North Riverside residents Sam Buonomo and Tom Rusnak, both retired high school drama department veterans, Buonomo at Argo High School and Rusnak at Morton East and West high schools.
It’s the first time both men have co-directed a show, though they’ve known each other for more than two decades. Both have plenty of experience dealing with amateur and often inexperienced actors.
“There’s a lot of shepherding,” said Rusnak, who noted that the cast includes actors ranging in age from 7 to 70. “You shepherd the passion.”
And while you might think Rusnak and Buonomo are constantly tinkering to hone each performer’s performance, the directors tend to give the actors space to discover what they’re doing.
“You drop seeds,” Buonomo said. “You give them an idea and give them connections they can develop on stage.”
Ticket sales for Fiddler have been good thus far, said Meyer, stronger than Guys and Dolls a year ago. Six performances are planned for Apr, 26, 27 and 28 and May 3, 4 and 5. Shows on Friday and Saturday begin at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday shows are matinees at 2:30 p.m.