by Michael Bowen

In a cramped school cafeteria filled with running, screaming kids, a large man hovers over a group of children with expectant looks on their faces and bowls on their heads. In this, the first rough run-through rehearsal for Spokane Theatrical Group's Oliver!, Director Troy Nickerson had to organize 19 workhouse waifs, ranging in age from five to 15, and get them to pick up all the orphanage's tables and benches and pots and pans from the play's first scene, then lug them "offstage" quietly and efficiently. With only a few minutes to master this fire drill, the orphan-actors got it right on the second try. Nickerson allowed himself a brief smile and a golf clap, then bellowed "Quiet, please!" for the next rehearsal segment to begin.

The kids just kept on running and screaming.

Oliver!, which opens Friday at The Met for a two-week run, certainly creates some logistical hurdles, with 58 actors, singers, and dancers all told -- 32 of them children. By comparison, last December's A Wonderful Life, with 46 people in the cast, was the biggest show ever staged at the Civic.

Musical Director Carol Miyamoto, in between stints at the rehearsal piano, pondered the logistical difficulties of a show this size and with so many children. She had nothing but praise for the 13 boys in Fagin's band of pickpockets: "They only have two numbers, and both of them are quite complex. Still, they were awfully quick learners. It was a delight to work with them."

Because Nickerson spent the first several days of the three-week rehearsal period plunking away at the bass as Moose in the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre production of Crazy for You, Miyamoto took over the initial directing responsibilities. She'll lead a five-piece orchestra: piano, flute, clarinet, trombone and percussion. Nickerson handles the choreography.

Lionel Bart's 1960 musical is based on Charles Dickens' 1838 novel -- and was itself transformed into an Academy-Award-winning movie in 1968, then revised for a 1994 production with Jonathan Pryce as Fagin. It is the tale of a little orphan boy who first toils in the depressing atmosphere of a children's workhouse, works briefly for the undertaker who buys him, then falls in with a London gang led by the master thief, Fagin.

The tunes you'll be humming as you leave The Met include "Food, Glorious Food," in which orphans fantasize about "hot sausage and mustard" instead of their daily gruel; Oliver's lament for the sad state of the world and for his lost mother, "Where is Love?"; the musical sequence when the Artful Dodger recruits Oliver into the street gang and tells him to "[Consider Yourself] One of the Family"; and Fagin's tutorial for the novice thief, "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two."

In his first community theater (non-school) show, Benjamin Bartels, a third-grader at Evergreen Elementary, takes on the title role. Playing an orphan "feels real," he says, because "sometimes my mom or dad will get busy or something and leave me alone, and then I get to be on my own." Is he frightened by any of the play's villainous characters? Nah. "I feel a tiny bit scared, but not really, because [the actors] are just real people." (So much for this particular waif's willing suspension of disbelief.) And Benjamin's "favorite song in the show is 'Where is Love?' because I get to be all alone onstage." No signs of stage-fright in this lost little boy.

Tom Heppler will portray the master thief, Fagin, and he somehow has to be both ingratiating and menacing. "One night at rehearsal," Heppler relates, "I told the boys in my gang, 'If you cross me, I'll just knock you out of the way.' They didn't believe me, but later, [playfully] I did it." Fagin uses and abuses his boys, so that he only appears to be more welcoming than the workhouse and the undertaker's were to Oliver.

"Twenty-seven years ago," Heppler recalls, "I was in this same show in high school. I was Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker, though of course [Fagin] was the role I wanted. So now I get to play it, and it's like a dream part." The acting is more interesting than in most musicals, "because this really is a non-traditional musical. It's not boy-meets-girl, it's not Rodgers and Hammerstein and Oklahoma! I'm having a great time doing this. And it's great for the kids: it's like a form of summer school for them."

In the story, Bill Sikes and Nancy, two of Fagin's former proteges in crime, have contrasting attitudes towards Oliver, with Bill despising the boy and Nancy trying to protect him. Jhon Goodwin and Thara Cooper, who play the two roles, took a break during rehearsal to consider the play's themes and their own characters' relationship.

Cooper, who does a mean Cockney accent, broke out of it to ponder how, "the show is about good vs. evil, but what's interesting is that it's a story about a little boy, and how everything happens to him, yet how he still remains a good person. That's in contrast to several of the adult characters, who have been kids" who were exposed to that same kind of ugliness, "and yet they choose not to be good" in the way that Oliver does. For example, Cooper notes, Bill used to be one of Fagin's boys, but now he's grown up and wants some distance from his former master: "Bill is like the king; all the boys aspire to be like Bill."

Goodwin agrees: "Fagin just uses and abuses his boys, and at some point, [Bill] just snapped." Sikes is a villain, and yet, notes Cooper, "Nancy stays around. It's a choice she's made. She's a lost person. She feels beyond redemption." Cooper feels that Nancy stays with Bill simply because she loves him. "It's not simply a Victorian problem" -- and here Goodwin pops in with, "that's what makes her similar to an abused woman today." Director Nickerson remarks that, "the thing that surprised me most during rehearsals is the relationship between Nancy and Bill Sikes -- its complexity. She's not just a victim."

Indeed, Oliver! presents a problem with emotional tone. There are plenty of what Cooper calls "chipper and upbeat songs," yet these are set in the appalling conditions of the workhouse, the slums, the underworld and a world of adults who don't trouble themselves with having compassion for any children. In the end, justice triumphs, evil is punished and Oliver endures to the happy ending. But not without some edginess. If Nickerson's troupe can pull off this tricky combination of dark social commentary and light musical comedy, perhaps, at the end of the show we will find ourselves, along with Oliver, asking, "Please, sir, I want some more."

The Spokane Theatrical Group presents Oliver! at The Met on July 21-23 and July 25-29. Performances are at 8 pm except for the Sunday matinees, July 23 and 29, which are at 2 pm.

Tickets: $15; $10 seniors and students. Call: 325-SEAT.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.