WALLA WALLA -- Reciting lines in English while using Russian accents, at the same time learning a good deal of Yiddish, and getting numerous sociopolitical history lessons on pre-revolutionary Tzarist Russian ¬-- oy vey!
As they prepare to put on "Fiddler on the Roof," a cast of 40 dramatic arts youths at Walla Walla High School has taken on one of the most popular musicals of the later half of the 20th century and learned a lot about what it was like to be a Russian Jew in 1905.
"We had to talk about the unrest that was going on in the monarchy, and about the October Revolution that was going on, and how the country was so unstable," Wa-Hi dramatic arts director Brian Senter said.
So that is why many rehearsals started off with lessons on Marxism, Leninism, the Romanov Dynasty and the persecution of the Jews.
"You heard about the stuff Hitler did with the Jews, and that is the extent of the meanness toward the Jews that I have heard about. And then I did the research, and there is just so much stuff," said sophomore Cougar Henderson, 15, who plays Tevye.
For Henderson, this will be his second casting in the play, as he had a small part in the production that the Liberty Theater of Dayton put on several years ago.
This time Henderson got the lead of Tevye, a father of five daughters who struggles to maintain both his and their Jewish tradition.
All the while, Tevye must fight against the anti-Semitic culture, as well as the desires of his daughters for independence and the right to marry whom they wish.
"I am a pretty high-energy bouncy, eccentric type of kid. And after learning about the struggles they went through and the pain they saw, it slowed me down a lot. And I am playing this character as the old, tired dairyman that he is," Henderson said.
As if Russian politics wasn't enough for the liberal arts students, the cast also had to learn to speak the centuries-old, mostly German-Hebrew language known as Yiddish. And when they weren't speaking Yiddish, they had to speak English as if they were Russian.
"It was a lot of sort of repeating, just mimicking what Mr. Senter helped us with. And we had to do a lot of research online and listen to people who have Russian accents just to mimic rolling and mimic the vowel sounds," senior Hayden Winn, 18, said.
Winn plays a dancing Russian barmaid, as well as the deceased Fruma Sarah, a specter from the grave who warns Tevye not to allow his daughter to marry her widower husband.
While "Fiddler on the Roof" may seem dark and somber, especially when dealing with the persecution that the Jews faced, the play is in fact a musical comedy.
"It deals with big issues; it is very funny, but the kind of funny that has a lot of irony in it. And it is funny because the people are funny," Senter said.
"Fiddler" is also a challenge for the young actors, who are used to performing lighter musicals such as "Grease" or "The Wizard of Oz."
"It is really a good actors' piece. It is not just singing and dancing. It has agony, pain, mistrust, confusion," Senter said.
As for the score, from the late 1960s through the 1970s, songs from "Fiddler on the Roof" were staples in Broadway music fans' homes, The classics include "Matchmaker," "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Sunrise, Sunset."
If you are unfamiliar with these songs, then it is worth seeing the production just for the music alone.