Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in the 1830s as social novel, calling attention to various hypocrisies of the Victorian era, including the workhouse and child labor. It has been called one of the first novels to depict criminals in a realistic, unromanticized manner.
In the late 1950s, Lionel Bart turned the tale into the stage musical Oliver!, softening many of the elements that Dickens had highlighted and adding catchy tunes and an engaging young cast. The public went wild, and the show won Tony Awards and, when it was turned into a film, the Academy Award for best musical.
There have been several revivals and tours of the show; one of which opens tonight in the Stranahan Theater for six performances through Sunday as the inaugural show of the 2008-09 Theater League season.
Oliver! is the story of a young orphan who, when he asks for more food at the orphanage, is labeled a greedy troublemaker and summarily apprenticed to an undertaker. Treated cruelly, Oliver runs away to London, where he is befriended by the Artful Dodger, who takes the lad home to meet his family.
Oliver, an innocent, doesn t realize that Dodger and his pals are pickpockets in a crime ring run by a master thief named Fagin, and he willingly joins in their games, happy to have a home and friends.
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But Nancy, a pub wench and former pupil of Fagin, understands what Oliver is getting himself into, and she s determined to save him, which doesn t sit well with her lover, Bill Sikes, whose criminal activities are far more violent that lifting wallets and silk scarves.
For the Theater League production, Zachary Mordechai and Rhiannon West ( Yes, I was named after the Fleetwood Mac song ) play Fagin and Nancy.
In a telephone interview from Columbia, S.C., where the tour had stopped late last month, Mordechai said he plays Fagin a little edgier than the movie version.
In this production, Fagin is a criminal, an antagonist. All of the evil that you see in Bill Sikes really happens because he was raised by somebody who was very morally compromised, like Fagin, Mordechai said.
For all that, Fagin is sympathetic because he s human. He doesn t wish to harm his boys; he just doesn t know how to deliver anything else, Mordechai said.
Oliver is the first national tour for West, 21. A graduate of the American Music and Dramatic Academy in New York, the Mobile, Ala., native said that she s enjoying the show because of its elements of reality.
Many popular musicals are built around big production numbers, she said, which diminishes the acting. Oliver! isn t like that.
Two of my favorite moments are [the songs] As Long as He Needs Me and the reprise of It s a Fine Life because I think those are two of the show s grittiest numbers, West said.
There s nothing saccharine about the situation, she explained. Nancy understands that Bill treats her badly, but she loves him anyway. She understands that her life isn t wonderful, but she makes the best of it. I really like doing musical theater where acting, singing, and reality all come together.
Another thing West likes about the production is that it s fairly age-appropriate.
Nancy s not supposed to be any older really than 20. She s a young girl, but she s had to grow up pretty fast, which is why I identify with her, because I come off a lot more mature for my age to a lot of people.
Mordechai said that while he s not quite as old as Fagin he s 29, not in his 40s or 50s he has some sympathy for the character.
I play him kind of true to the novel where he is called Fagin the Jew. He probably had an incredibly hard time being a Jewish immigrant in England and probably was a victim of terrible anti-Semitism and a lot of prejudice, Mordechai said.
In the end of our production, there is the question of whether Fagin repents. We don t answer that question, but I think we end it [the show] on somewhat of a positive note. It s a mature ending for the play. We hope that people can change, but maybe some people can t.
The son of an Orthodox rabbi on Long Island, N.Y., Mordechai said he was in medical school when he made the switch to acting. I just kind of left [school] with nothing. I slept at my friend s on a couch in the city and I started auditioning and was lucky enough to get a great role very early, the emcee in Cabaret in Cape Cod, and then I just never looked back.
Oliver! is scheduled at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets range from $23 to $51. Information: 419-381-8851 or stranahantheater.com.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6130.