Nontraditional ‘Fiddler’ production is longtime music teacher’s grand finale
After 25 years of building an unrivaled musical tradition at Chugiak High, Ron Lange still has a couple notes up his sleeve.
“It is nice to go, ‘I’m not in that rut anymore,’” Lange said last week at Bartlett High during a break in rehearsals for “Fiddler on the Roof,” which will be his first — and last — production as both musical and overall director. “This is completely something else.”
Lange is retiring this year after a decorated career that’s seen Chugiak’s music program bring home countless state and national awards during his tenure at both Chugiak and Eagle River High. Although the experience is bittersweet, Lange said he’s enjoyed this production as much as any he’s been involved with since he started teaching at Gruening Middle School in 1994 after moving to Alaska in 1992 from his native Texas.
“It’s turning out to be one that I’m enjoying while I’m working on it. A lot of times it’s work, but this is pretty pleasant; I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “Which is a good way to go.”
The show opens Thursday and runs through Saturday at 7 p.m. each night at the Bartlett Auditorium. Tickets are $12 or $5 for students with a valid student ID.
Lange couldn’t have picked a more challenging show for his directorial debut. In fact, this season’s production of the timeless Broadway musical about a Jewish father named Tevye and his six daughters is likely to go down as one of the most unique in local high school musical lore.
“This one has been mixing four different schools,” he said of the show, which opens Thursday at Bartlett.
The show was originally planned to be staged at the Steve Primis Auditorium in Chugiak with a cast and crew made up of students from Chugiak and Eagle River High. Then the earthquake struck.
The Nov. 30 quake damaged both the auditorium and Gruening Middle School, which was forced to send students to Chugiak. The middle school was already in the process of planning its own theater production, so GMS drama teacher Meghan Card approached Lange with an unorthodox idea: Why not have Gruening students join the high school musical instead?
“He was totally on board from the beginning. He was really welcoming about that,” Card said.
So Card joined Lange and Eagle River High teacher Danielle Lewis in organizing the production. Although having three directors might seem like a recipe for disaster, the trio bring complimentary skills to the stage — Lewis has an acting background, Card is a former “techie” and Lange has the musical chops.
“All three of us have worked famously together,” Lange said. A lot of times there’s a lot of tension in this type of stuff. No tension with the three of us at all, totally supportive.”
Another member of the team is 1998 Chugiak grad Sam Swartz, an auditorium tech for the Anchorage School District who worked under Lange as a student at CHS two decades ago. Swartz had to disassemble the musical’s set after the crew learned they wouldn’t be able to put on the show at the Prims, which remains unusable due to quake damage. The move presented numerous logistical challenges, such as having to build sets at Bartlett even as the cast is rehearsing.
“For the kids it’s a good experience because that’s the way a big show that was planned that way comes in,” Swartz said.
Having a cast made up of students from three different schools has also been challenging, but something the cast and crew have embraced, according to Eagle River senior Emily Witte.
“We haven’t had any issues with anybody being mean, everyone’s being really helpful and it’s honestly great and it’s cool the middle schoolers get the chance to be in a high school play experience,” said Witte, who plays Tevye’s daughter Hodel in the production.
Gruening seventh-grader Olivia Moncur is in the chorus. She said getting to be a part of a big high school musical has been a huge step up for the middle schoolers in the play.
“In high school, it’s like, ‘Alright, I know what I should expect of these guys, and I hope they can meet those expectations.’” she said. “So far I think that we are.”
The show has received support from countless people in the community. Longtime music teacher George Pierce has been working with the orchestra while the actors rehearse and Card said community members have pitched in by helping with everything from costume design to set construction — Lewis’s husband, Perry, even has a bit part as a constable.
“The community angle for me has been the thing that’s been the most fun,” Card said. “Obviously getting displaced out of your building in an earthquake is not fun, but getting to be a part of this production and just feeling the community help has been amazing.”
Swartz agreed. While he’s sad not to be at his home auditorium, the technician whose career began at Chugiak High said the show is an example of the best his hometown has to offer.
“As far as community building, this has been great,” he said. “I think that it proves what Chugiak-Eagle River community is.”
As for the director at the heart of the show, Swartz said Lange has been his usual joking, curmudgeonly self.
“If you walk in and hear him yelling at students, any student who knows him knows that is not him directing anger at you, it’s his motivation,” Swartz said.
Witte said working with Lange has been fun — in its own unique way.
“We love Lange, Lange is a fantastic teacher,” she said. “He has the kind of wonderful, insulting compliments, and we love him for it.”
Swartz said that’s classic Lange.
“For the 30-some odd years I’ve known Ron, that’s the way he was the day I met him, and frankly, other than a little bit more gray he hasn’t changed a lot,” he said.
Witte said she’s learned a lot under Lange’s guidance.
“He is an amazingly talented musician in terms of being able to teach kids,” she said.
Lange first worked on a Chugiak High production of “Fiddler” in 1998, and said getting to stage the show again in his last year has given him a chance to reflect on his career.
“It meant something different to me in ’97 than it does today,” he said. “I was more loving those younger kids’ solos, but by the time I’m this age, I like Tevya’s solos better.”
Although the production has had far more challenges than most, Lange said he wouldn’t want to go out any other way. And he predicted audiences will fall in love with the show that’s become a labor of love for all involved.
“For a school production, this is a once in a lifetime,” he said.
Lange and the rest of the cast, crew and volunteers agreed that the difficulties involved in this year’s production may make it one of the best ever.
“We took a bad shot and we made it,” Lange said.