Texan Steven Skybell comes to AYA Sunday, March 19
By Deb Silverthorn
The tradition of Jews loving “Tradition” is sure to be felt beginning at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 19, at Akiba Yavneh Academy when award-winning Broadway actor Steven Skybell, and Zalman Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, present “Tevye.” The event is open to the public.
“We’re thrilled to have ‘Tevye,’ Steven Skybell, come home to Texas and appear at Akiba Yavneh Academy. The music, the spirit and the flavor of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is embedded in our school, our tradition and in the history of our families. It’s that tradition that we teach our children here every day,” said David Radunsky, AYA board president.
Skybell comes to Dallas after a second run off-Broadway as Tevye in the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” for which the actor received the Lucille Lortel award for Best Performance by a leading actor in a musical.
“I’m thrilled to bring “Tevye,” the music of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and other classical Yiddish favorites to Dallas. Everyone knows and loves the music, and we feel good the minute we hear the first notes. The audience just smiles, and I’m honored to bring that to town,” said the actor.
Skybell was born in Amarillo and raised in Lubbock, the son of the late Shirlene and Irvin and the brother of Joseph and of Dallas residents Susan (Alan Press) Skibell-Press and Cindy (David) Winston. The actor changed the family spelling of Skibell to Skybell for himself, for ease of pronunciation.
When Skybell was 10, his family’s Congregation Shaareth Israel sponsored the opening screening of “Fiddler on the Roof” when it premiered at Lubbock’s Winchester Theatre in 1972. Memories of the chopped liver sold during the intermission and the movie, which portrayed stories such as his grandfather Archie told of being raised in Poland, remain fresh.
Skybell’s first “Fiddler” experience, at 11, was as a “chuppah boy” in the Lubbock Theatre Center’s production. At 17, he played Tevye at the Interlochen Center for the Arts Summer Arts Camp. After graduating from Coronado High School, he took to the classrooms and stages in New Haven, again playing Tevye, and earning undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale’s School of Drama.
Skybell played 10 roles on Broadway before his “Fiddler” debut as Lazar Wolf in 2015, which was followed by a run as Tevye in an off-Broadway, English-spoken production. “I could never get enough.”
He has performed as Hamlet and Richard II in Shakespeare in the Park, which is held in Manhattan’s Central Park, and as Dr. Dillamond in “Wicked.” He’s appeared in television roles including “Blue Bloods,” “Law and Order” and “Sex in the City,” and in the film “Cradle Will Rock.”
Skybell’s husband, Michael Cole, first heard Joel Grey was directing an all-Yiddish version of the masterpiece.
Years earlier, Skybell and his brother had bought Yiddish language books and studied together by phone. Later, Skybell studied in Chicago with Yiddish scholar the late Dr. Khane-Faygl Turtletaub, who lived to see her student as Tevye.
“It was 12 years later and so meaningful for her to be in the audience. It’s our language and it’s been something very special to share this role to so many,” said Skybell.
Skybell continues studying with his brother, the two now learning Daf Yomi, daily study of Oral Law and its commentaries.
Skybell’s siblings all say this performance — with its Yiddish core — touches their souls.
“It’s brilliant to bring Steven, Tevye, here and I say that as a fan, not just his sister,” said Winston. “We saw the show twice and even though I don’t speak Yiddish, it was wonderful.”
Skibell-Press, who’s also seen the show twice, says, “Our brother is so passionate about this role and his performances are so moving. We’re used to traveling to see him and now really excited he’s coming to us.”
According to Skybell’s brother-in-law, Alan Press, “No one’s ever been to a simcha where ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ wasn’t played. It’s our music and Steven’s performances have brought many to tears — he’s that great.”
The show debuted in 2018 and closed at the pandemic’s start, returning in late November 2022 for seven weeks, with Carol Burnett, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Joe Lieberman, Barry Manilow, Mandy Patinkin and Itzhak Perlman among those in the audiences. Offering rave reviews are ticket holders and Dallasites Linda Blasnik and Lowell Michelson.
“We knew the Dallas Skibells and Mom speaks Yiddish, so it was a win-win. The show was lovely and colorful and I almost felt like I was in the shtetl,” said Blasnik, who with her husband took his mother to the show.
Michelson has also seen the show twice. Realizing a flyer he saw at Akiba Yavneh was of the same actor, he circled the date on his calendar.
“Steven is one of the greatest. His mannerisms, the dialect, his timing — he is Tevye,” said Michelson. “I’m a cheerleader for sure and hope people will bring their kids, their parents, everybody.”
Bringing Skybell to the stage of AYA’s Pollman Hall is Terri Rohan (née Luskey), who was raised in Lubbock. The Luskey and the Skibell families are longtime friends, and it was she who called to congratulate Skybell on his show’s resurgence.
“I asked if he’d consider coming to do a performance at Akiba Yavneh and he didn’t hesitate. I can’t wait!” she said.
“I’ve loved acting since I was a kid and that hasn’t changed,” said Skybell. “I’ve been doing make-believe and pretend all my life and I know I am absolutely blessed to be able to make a living doing so. It is every bit an honor that I treasure.”
Corporate sponsors of the evening (at press time) are AT&T Performing Arts Center, A Taste of the World Catering, IMA, K Market Grocery & Deli, Kahn Mechanical Contractors, Marsh McLennan Agency, Shiloh Winery, SFMG Wealth Advisors, Shabbos Blooms and the Texas Jewish Post.
“We invite the greater community to Akiba Yavneh’s annual fundraiser, to enjoy this wonderful performance while supporting Jewish education at AYA,” said Radunsky. “Come enjoy our tradition while investing in our future.”
To purchase show tickets or raffle tickets or to sponsor “Tevye at AYA,” visit akibayavneh.org/giving/tevye.