All season long, the Kensington Arts Theatre (KAT) has been presenting plays “from across the pond” or works that originated in and concern England. First, it was “Sweeney Todd,” and then “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.”
The upcoming production is “Oliver!” a musical based on Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist” about the orphan who finds happiness and a home after many tribulations.
With the book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, the show opened in London’s West End in 1960 and came to Broadway three years later.
Besides the English connection, what was the draw for KAT?
“I like the story,” said John Nunemaker, artistic director. “But I also realized this is really a story about families – each group is a family of a different type.”
Fagin, who turns the orphans into pickpockets who truly cares about them. The workhouse is cruel but has a matriarch and patriarch. And of course, there’s Mr. Brownlow, who offers Oliver a traditional loving home.
In the title role of the production is Cody Yeatman, a homeschooled 13-year-old in ninth grade whose theater experience up to now has been primarily with the Northern Virginia Players.
“I wanted to audition for ‘Oliver!’ because it was a different experience than auditioning for my usual theatre troupe,” Yeatman said. “Being mostly a character actor, I was shooting for Dodger (the leader of the child pickpockets Fagin trains). Looks like I overshot.”
The hardest thing about playing Oliver, Yeatman said, is probably the accent – which is Cockney. Counterbalancing that challenge are two facts: that “Oliver!’s” music is some of his favorite music ever. Plus, Yeatman believes he and the character he’s playing have something in common in being “fairly naive and innocent. These traits gave me a starting point and help me to develop Oliver’s character,” he said.
Another ambivalent family-like relationship in the musical is that between Nancy and Bill Sykes, the main antagonist in Fagin’s gang whom she loves. Justine Summers plays Nancy, a role she first tackled in high school. She is making her debut at Kensington Arts but had a great deal of experience performing Gilbert and Sullivan.
Summers said her biggest challenge has been to understand why Nancy stays in an abusive relationship when she has a chance to get away. “I don’t have to agree with all my character’s choices, but I have to understand them,” Summers said.
But over time, Nancy became clearer to her, especially in the character’s signature song, “As Long as He Needs Me.” If she leaves Bill, she will be overcome with loneliness. She’ll lose her “family.” What’s more, if she leads the authorities to Bill, Fagin and the boys she cares for won’t be far behind, Summers explained.
At the same time, she said, Nancy is an “incredibly modern character, with self-awareness and self-possession.”
Much as Nunemaker loves “Oliver!” it does present a challenge in its very large cast – including some 15 children – and in the need to coordinate rehearsal and performance schedules. Things get more complicated because the young actors have dual roles as the workhouse children and Fagin’s pickpockets.
It helped that most of them had heard of “Oliver!” and were familiar with the Dickens characters. Some had seen the movie, which in 1968 won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. And, said Nunemaker, it’s satisfying watching his young actors develop their characters and coalesce into a group. “When I hear them singing, it’s mind-blowing,” he said.
Added Cody Yeatman: “I’m grateful to John Nunemaker; he’s really patient with the actors – especially the kids.”
“Oliver!” runs May 10-26 at the Kensington Arts Theatre, 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington. www.katonline.org.