Arts and Entertainment

Ovation! Musical Theatre’s 'Oliver!' relies on youth performances

At 10, Sam Warkentin already understands an essential of acting: remove yourself from yourself.

“That’s part of getting into your character,” he said. “When you get into your character, you’re right in Oliver Twist’s shoes. It’s so much different than I am in real life.”

Warkentin, a 5th grader at Sakai, is one of 31 actors in Ovation! Musical Theatre’s holiday production of “Oliver!” who are under age 18, and one of 20 under age 12. Like Charles Dickens’ original novel “Oliver Twist,” this show’s story rests heavily on the shoulders of young people, all of whom relish the chance to sink their teeth into substantial roles and strong music.

The show, which opened last night at the Bainbridge High School Theatre, offers audiences a feel-good package of iconic tunes like “Food, Glorious Food,” “Who Will Buy,” and “Consider Yourself.” But it doesn’t shy from the character-rich social commentary central to the novel, on topics like urban poverty, child labor, crime and spousal abuse. That’s part of what sets the show apart for young actors like Warkentin, whose previous Ovation roles included a farm boy in “Oklahoma!” and a gingerbread boy in “Hansel and Gretel” – the chance to do something a little meatier, a little heavier. To completely step outside themselves.

BHS senior Simon Paterson said he underwent an adjustment period when he first got into his character, the vicious criminal Bill Sykes.

“The first few rehearsals, it kind of felt weird doing it,” Paterson said. “After I’d walk off stage, the kids backstage would look away. It took me awhile to get used to the character because he’s so awful.”

Lesley Lemon relishes her role of the Artful Dodger, an irresistable young pickpocket, because playing against type helps her tap into a new part of herself.

“He always feels like he has everything under control,” Lemon said. “He’s very smooth, and charming. I’d like to be like him. It’s just a lot of fun to be charming and witty.”

Lemon draws a contrast between Dodger’s laid-back demeanor and that of Sykes, whom Lemon says is the only character capable of tripping Dodger’s trigger, and provoking him to rage.

“He’s always beating up on Nancy. Dodger really likes Nancy, and it always makes him tick. (But) he’s too afraid of Bill Sykes to try to stop him,” Lemon said.

Greer Gibbens said it’s interesting to approach her tragic character, Nancy, from the standpoint of age. She noted there’s a discrepancy across different “Oliver!” productions as to exactly how old Nancy is, or is played. In some ways, that makes her her maternal behavior toward Oliver, and her relationship with Sykes, intriguing. In other ways, perhaps it’s inapplicable; in Oliver’s world, the young are forced to grow up quickly. Gibbens, just 16 herself, was able to develop a strong connection to Nancy.

“We’re not just singing these songs...we have to understand every aspect of not only their daily lives, but what they’re singing about,” Gibbens said. “Especially with Nancy, it’s important to understand why she would stay with such a man as Bill Sykes. It was important to get into that frame of mind. I think for all her strength and grit, she has an enormous need to love and be loved, which lends her an enormous vulneratiblity.”

Amidst its depictions of harsh and poor lives, to love and be loved is what ultimately drives “Oliver!” and what all four of these young actors come back to when they talk about performing in a company. When Paterson says of life on the street in Victorian London, “You need to know certain people, and you can’t do it alone,” the message is broadly applicable to their work with Ovation, the community connections they’ve each forged there, and theater itself.

“I think if I didn’t ahve heater in my life, I’d be suffering some sort of breakdown,” Gibbens said.

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