CENTERVILLE — In 1838, the celebrated English author Charles Dickens published his second novel, “Oliver Twist.” Now, nearly 180 years later, this beloved story of an orphan boy who wants nothing more than to be loved is taking the stage in CenterPoint Legacy Theatre’s production of “Oliver!” this month.
The classic Victorian-era tale follows orphan Oliver from the workhouse to a gang of pickpockets living on London's cruel streets.
Although thievery isn’t his nature, Oliver learns that he has a knack for stealing as he is schooled in crime by the other boys, led by the manipulative Fagin.
JT O’Reilly, who plays the role of Oliver on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, found his character's complexities in the rehearsal process.
“I learned that Oliver gets pushed around a lot physically and emotionally,” the 11-year-old said in an interview with the Deseret News. “He doesn’t always get to be a loving, innocent child people think of him as.”
Alternating the role with O'Reilly, 9-year-old Jonathan Martineau also plays the title role.
“I hope the audience gains a new appreciation for childhood and notices more the little ones in their lives,” Martineau said. “I have learned that Oliver is a very kind, forgiving, curious and humble little boy who doesn't get treated well, but remains kind and loving in spite of all the sadness around him."
According to Liz Christensen, the show’s director, "Oliver!" demonstrates that when institutions and laws fail, compassionate individuals can still make meaningful and lasting differences in the lives of others who need them.
Taking that to heart, one of the things Christensen has enjoyed doing through the rehearsal process is asking cast members and the production team what the story of “Oliver!” means to them.
“Every group of six or so individuals that I've asked, I've gotten six different answers and I think that's part of the appeal of this iconic story,” she said. “Because it is so rich and textured, it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and still hold up as a classic piece of literature.”
Scott Butler, who plays Fagin, has appreciated Christensen's questions and openness during rehearsals.
“Every show I'm a part of, I create somewhat of a backstory to help me in my choices as an actor,” Butler said. “What was so great about the process with ‘Oliver!’ was that we were able to sit down with our director and discuss the character’s backstory and why he is the way he is.”
Both Butler and his counterpart Adam West (who plays Fagin on alternating nights) said they have had a lot of fun portraying the character of Fagin. The actors both refer to Fagin as a “bucket list role.”
“Fagin is so fun and I love the different sides of his character, especially the humor that's portrayed,” West said.”
West remembered being both terrified and fascinated by Fagin’s character when he watched “Oliver!” as a child.
“He’s a complicated character and very manipulative,” he said. “Caring on the outside to those who work for him so as to manipulate them to do his ‘dirty work.’ I have really tried to implement a manipulative caring tone into my portrayal of Fagin. He is very selfish and cares about very few people.”
Fagin’s right-hand boy, Dodger, often does his boss's dirty work. The tough boy also appears take Oliver under his wing.
“Dodger is a kid who has had a rough life and has to act like an adult to get by,” said 12-year-old Brandon Smith, who plays the role of Dodger. “He is charismatic and good at making people think he is their friend. But unfortunately, his lifestyle prevents him from having any true friends.”
Riley Allen, 13, who plays Dodger on alternating nights, describes his character as clever, resourceful, “and is never seen without his hat.”
“This cast has brought so much depth and personal experience to the collaborative process, and our kids are so charming,” Christensen said. “We have quite young Olivers and Dodgers, and they are excellent.”
According to West, the cast hopes the audience will be “singing or whistling some of the songs as they leave the performance.” He also hopes everyone will feel the heart, energy and love that has been put into “Oliver!”
“Hopefully, it can spark something in our audiences to inspire a little more compassion and to maybe gain a desire to help more in addressing the problems through local charities and volunteer efforts rather than pretending they are issues that don't exist just because we don't see them happening on a daily basis coming and going from our homes,” Butler added.
Christensen said the entire cast has worked hard to infuse the musical with the depth of Dicken’s book and to “strike a delicate balance between drama and comedy.”
“That has been an exciting challenge,” she said.
“Oliver!” runs April 14 through May 13 with shows running Mondays through Saturday at 7 p.m., with matinee performances on Saturdays. Tickets can be reserved by calling the box office at 801-298-1302 or by going online to cptutah.org.