As Arizona Theatre Company celebrates its 50th anniversary with its largest production ever, “Fiddler on the Roof,” two Jewish University of Arizona seniors are making their ATC debuts in the iconic musical, under the direction of ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein. For Shira Elena Maas (Rivka) and Taylor Pearlstein (Hodel), the tale of family, faith and deep tradition is both moving and personal.
Maas grew up in Tucson and attended Hebrew school at Congregation Chaverim. A graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy, she recently appeared as Fraulein Schneider in the UA Arizona Repertory Theatre’s “Cabaret,” appeared in Arizona Repertory Theatre’s “Rent” and Arizona Onstage Productions’ “Bad Jews.” With plans to go to New York after graduation, her ambition is to act on TV and appear on Broadway.
Her love for the performing arts began early. “I remember when I was little, putting on plays for the family.” She acted in elementary school productions, and began training in singing when she was 9, appearing in “Kiss Me Kate” and Rodgers and Hammerstein productions, and learning to sing opera at age 15.
Shows like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret,” which draw attention to Jewish persecution, can be a dark and painful experience, says Maas, who has family connections who died in a concentration camp. But, she says, “’Fiddler’ speaks to the human side of any religion.” When one sister, Chava, falls in love with Fyedka, a non-Jew, “her father doesn’t want to talk to her. But I think the biggest message is how important family is, and community and friends — and how quickly everything can change.”
Acting offers a unique way to connect and reach out to the community, says Seattle-born Pearlstein. “People need art not only to lift them up, but also to challenge and speak out about what’s going on around us; especially with a show like this that’s so poignant with its message.”
The role of Hodel, who has always been faithful to Jewish tradition, highlights the conflict between tradition and change, she says. Falling in love with revolutionary student Perchik, an outsider to the community, “opens her mind to what the world can be. For a while it’s hard for her to accept these new ideas versus how she’s grown up and what her ancestors have laid out for her,” says Pearlstein.
A descendent of Polish-Canadian immigrants, some of whom experienced persecution, Pearlstein was inspired by her paternal great-grandmother. “She was a very strong Jewish woman. She helped bring family members from Europe after the war.” Growing up with the knowledge of centuries of Jewish persecution, and what it means to be Jewish today, she says, “I think there’s a certain responsibility a Jewish person has to carry it forward, and honor those people and their traditions.”
Pearlstein recently appeared in 5th Avenue Theatre’s “Pump Up the Volume”; with the Arizona Repertory Theatre she played Mimi in “Rent” and appeared in “A Little Night Music,” “Cabaret” and “Hands on a Hard Body.”
Preview performances of “Fiddler” begin Dec. 3; the play opens Dec. 9 and runs through Dec. 31. For tickets, visit arizonatheatre.org.