“For Your Entertainment” is my weekly column about music, theatre and the arts in western Manitoba. It appears in The Brandon Sun’s community newspaper and aims to inform residents about local events and the city’s growing arts scene.
In revisiting a musical they’ve done before, 7 Ages Productions hopes to offer audiences a twist on the original — an Oliver Twist, to be exact.
The local theatre company first brought “Oliver!” to the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium in 2005 and this time around the stage will be set with a modern steampunk aesthetic.
“It’s Victorian and it’s Industrial Revolution, and the whole idea I thought would fit ‘Oliver!’ very well as a show, to have this steampunk-inspired costuming,” 7 Ages artistic director George Buri said during a recent rehearsal.
The successful Broadway musical, written by Lionel Bart and based on Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel “Oliver Twist,” focuses on the plight of orphaned children and the social injustices of 19th-century London.
The steampunk motif — which is brought to life with goggles, canes, corsets and mechanical cogs — will be most apparent with the leading underclass characters like Fagin and his gang of pickpockets, The Artful Dodger and Bill Sykes.
The 53-member cast is largely made up of young people, theatre newcomers and families and the crew have been rehearsing twice a week since January. I sat down with several of the actors prior to opening night.
Having played leading roles in recent productions like “Les Misérables” and “Beauty and the Beast,” Carson Burr, 11, is an old pro when it comes to local theatre. Thanks to Burr’s experience, he’s not nervous about playing the leading orphan, Oliver Twist, although the role has forced him to learn a lot of new songs.
“There’s only two scenes that I’m not in,” Burr said, adding that he tries to step outside his own sensibilities when playing Oliver. “I try my hardest not to be myself … he’s a kid that gets into a lot of trouble.”
Burr says his favourite songs in the musical are “Consider Yourself” and “Pick a Pocket or Two.”
“There’s a lot of dancing in those ones and I love dancing,” he said.
While elements of the 7 Ages musical are new, several of its actors are not.
Avery Penner played a workhouse kid in the previous “Oliver!” production when she was only nine-years-old. Eleven years later, and the young singer has been cast as Nancy — one of the show’s leading ladies.
“I came into it knowing the story and a lot of the songs and now I get to play one of the character’s I looked up to as a kid, which is kind of cool,” Penner said.
The character Nancy is a longtime member of Fagin’s gang and lover of one of the play’s worst villains, Bill Sykes.
“I try to play her as a very strong woman … she’s kind of a mentor to the younger kids in the gang and she’s in a relationship with a very abusive man,” Penner said, adding that her favourite part of the musical is the range of emotions explored in its scenes. “It does show a lot of the different aspects of this time in London.”
Kenneth Jackson is not only returning to “Oliver!” he’s also returning to a character he knows well.
“This is the second time I’ve played Fagin… this time I think I’m reading the script and the lyrics a lot differently, and I think that just comes from being a little older,” Jackson said.
Fagin is a career criminal who takes in homeless kids and teaches them to pickpocket for his own gain.
Jackson says working with the young people in the musical has him feeling a bit nostalgic.
“My pickpockets that I had the first time we did this show are all now in their mid-20s and have gone on to be professionals,” Jackson said. “I’m thinking about where the next place these young actors are going.”