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Glenbard South grad, Wheaton native makes Off-Broadway debut in Yiddish 'Fiddler on the Roof'

James Monroe Števko performs in Yiddish version of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

Wheaton native and Glenbard South High School graduate James Monroe Števko (left) can be seen in the Yiddish verson of "Fiddler on the Roof" in New York City, directed by Academy Award-winning actor and director Joel Grey.
Wheaton native and Glenbard South High School graduate James Monroe Števko (left) can be seen in the Yiddish verson of "Fiddler on the Roof" in New York City, directed by Academy Award-winning actor and director Joel Grey.

Glenbard South High School graduate James Monroe Števko continues to spread his acting wings.

In July, Števko made his off-Broadway debut in New York City with “Fidler afn Dakh,” which is a Yiddish adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The show, which has been extended until Oct. 25, is directed by Academy Award-winning actor and director Joel Grey.

“The audience was great and was very enthusiastic,” Števko said in talking about the opening night of the show. “You could tell they showed up to enjoy the show.”

The show is being presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The 32-year-old Števko, who grew up in Wheaton, graduated from Glenbard South in 2004.

Števko has appeared on stage locally, including in productions at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

In “Fidler afn Dakh,” Števko plays the role of Mendel, the rabbi’s son. Not only did he have to learn his lines, he also had to learn Yiddish.

Števko thinks the fact that it is being performed in Yiddish presents the musical in a new light.

“Yiddish is the language of these people,” he said. “So to be doing this show as if those people had been speaking it, I think is really amazing, especially in a city where Jewish culture is so ingrained and important. What I noticed once I started doing this show is that it’s so well-written. I see why it’s been revived so many times and why it lasted so long on Broadway when it first opened. We’re doing the show again, but it’s something new and fresh.”

Števko said he believes the story is more timely than ever given the recent battle over immigration.

“It seems more relevant than it ever has,” he said.

Števko studied German while attending Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, which he thinks helped land him the part.

“Yiddish is derived from German, it’s a Germanic language, so that really helped with the grammar and the words,” he said.

At the same time, he said learning how to speak with a Yiddish accent “was tricky.”

“The first time at the callbacks and the audition, I was saying it more as if I was speaking German,” Števko said. “The Yiddish coach, he was present, he was there to grade all of our Yiddish speaking skills, and the one note I would constantly get is, ‘It sounds too German.’’’

Števko said he had the time of his life working with Grey, best known for his work in both the stage and film versions of the musical “Cabaret.”

“He’s 86 years old, and he’s still up and kicking and still smart as a whip,” he said. “I read his autobiography going into this, and I realized how much of an industry legend he is. I realized that people would die for this opportunity to work for this man who has done it all and who has won all these awards, and he’s still doing it.”

Grey interacted with all of the cast members, Števko said.

“He was completely friendly with everybody,” he said. “In fact, on the opening night, he wrote each of us a personalized note on Joel Grey stationery, which is something that I will cherish forever.”

The director also doesn’t play favorites, Števko said.

“He treats every cast member the same, on the same level, using the same love and encouragement,” he said.

After “Fidler afn Dakh” closes, Števko, who is a dancer and singer, plans to tour in “Nutcracker” productions during the holiday season. He also has appeared in New York City at Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes and the Metropolitan Opera.

Števko hopes his story will show Glenbard South students the opportunities that are available to them.

“I hope it inspires them,” he said.

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