Preview: McKeesport Area brings 'Oliver!' to musical stage
McKeesport Area High School's spring production of “Oliver!” is challenging student actors to let their individuality shine through the malaise of dark Dickensian characters.
“I'm a 17-year-old baritone, and I'm playing the role of a 70-year-old man with a raspy voice,” senior Paul Fields said of his role as Fagin in the British musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, “Oliver Twist.”
“We're all finding that the songs are easy, but the acting is rough. For me, it's a hard transition going from a young, flamboyant candle in “Beauty and the Beast” to an almost-virtuous but borderline crazy character.”
Fagin, also played by senior Henry Nightingale in McKeesport Area's double-cast show, leads a gang of children, whom he teaches to pickpocket for a living in exchange for food and shelter.
One of those children is the bold Oliver Twist, who becomes part of Fagin's crew by advice of the Artful Dodger in the famous tune, “Consider Yourself.” Oliver encounters Dodger after running away from the home of undertakers Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, who purchased him from an orphanage where he had overstepped his boundaries by asking for a second helping of dinner.
The plot line is peppered with storytelling songs, including “That's Your Funeral,” “I Shall Scream,” “Be Back Soon,” “Oom-Pah-Pah” — numbers that introduce the harsh lifestyle of many of the show's characters.
George Lepsch, a high school guidance counselor and “Oliver!” music director, said the songs give student performers a chance to sprinkle their unique styles into the show.
“We always want to encourage them to be individuals, and we always do a lot of double-casting,” Lepsch said. “When two people are sharing a role, I encourage them both to bring their individual interpretations to the stage. It makes it a little more challenging for our orchestra to get a sense of it, but it comes with time.”
Even with students' subtle interpretive elements and nuances, the classic songs of “Oliver!” remain memorable.
“This is one of my absolute favorite shows because of the music,” director Kimberly Moore said. “People who come to this show will walk out of here singing the songs. The tunes are catchy and infectious.”
Moore said the audience also is bound to fall in love with guest actors from the district's elementary programs.
Fourteen youngsters from Centennial and White Oak elementaries and Francis McClure Intermediate are joining the high school cast in the roles of Oliver, played by Noah Torok and Devari Robinson, along with the rest of Fagin's boys.
“Traditionally, we have trouble recruiting boys at the high school level,” Moore said. “By inviting younger students to take part in our production, we can get these boys hooked on theater and performing. Once you do that, the interest is infused into their minds and hearts. They find a love for it.”
Rahmel Neal, a 2011 McKeesport Area graduate, said the McKeesport Area program instilled in him a true love of the performing arts.
Neal returned to the theater this year to serve as Moore's assistant. Meeting the experience with mixed emotions, because he learned of his father's death upon walking off stage during his senior performance of “Pippin,” he said he wants students to know that theater has remained a strong, positive aspect in his life.
“These students should always be themselves and do what they do,” Neal said. “After high school, it's easy to lose who you are or forget why you enjoy something. Keep at it and stay passionate.”
Seniors Natalie Bane, who plays Mrs. Sowerberry and the Rose Seller; Livia Bodner, who plays Nancy; and Deanna DeCenzo, who plays the Widow Corney, said their passion for acting and singing helped them to enjoy the challenging roles of “Oliver!”
“It's something different for us,” Livia said. “It's serious. It's not glitzy or glamorous.”
Deanna said the elementary students who joined the cast as orphans brought a new livelihood to the set.
“It's been fun watching the little ones interact with the older students,” producer and high school choir teacher Beth Eger said. “They pick one and take them under their wing. It's been a bonding experience for the whole district.”
Natalie said the orphans likely will “steal the show.”
“They're making it more enjoyable for us,” she said. “When they get excited about going on stage, it helps us get more excited.”
While much of “Oliver!” subject matter is dark and slightly twisted, students said the vibe is lighthearted backstage because they're willing to meet the challenge.
“It's always a good challenge,” Paul said. “It encourages you to exceed expectations and do your very best. You're putting on a costume and playing make-believe, which keeps the experience fun for everyone.”
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956.
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