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For the week of Nov. 3, 1999 through Nov. 9, 1999

The optimism of Oliver

Laughing Stock brings Oliver the musical to Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

n3arts6.jpg (10029 bytes)Oliver Twist is by far the most depressing of Charles Dickens’ novels, but the Laughing Stock Theater Company’s musical adaptation of the novel, to be performed Nov. 5 through Nov. 10 at the Sun Valley Opera House, could be one of the most joyful theater events of the season.

In fact, Oliver—the story of a hungry boy and of the poverty and greed that oppressed 19th century England—was not chosen for thematic reasons, according to Kathy Wygle, Laughing Stock director and the director of Oliver. It was chosen because it was the kind of musical that would provide a community event or, as Wygle said, a "binding and bonding experience."

Laughing Stock, the oldest theater company in the valley with over 35 shows to its name, knows how to stage a community event. For Oliver, the company brought together a cast of 20 children (ages 6 to 18) and 22 adults; a cast coordinator; a stage manager; a director; two musical directors; three choreographers; four set designers; and a litany of make-up artists, costumers, and technical support. Remarkably, the stock is all local.

"Community theater is almost a celebration," said Wygle. "Something happens between the audience and the actors because they know each other. There’s a kind of pride that they can share."

To Wygle, one of the founders of Laughing Stock, that connection is "a crucial and wonderful aspect of community life."

Besides that audience and actor exchange, there is also a connection happening among families on the set of Oliver.

Two generations of Pruitts, Harrisons, Dallagos, Hemmings and Stuarts are interacting on the stage, making Oliver one of the most family-oriented productions in Laughing Stock’s history.

As strong as her convictions are about community-building through theater, Wygle is just as steeped in professionalism.

"Our level of expectation is really high," said Wygle. "We take our auditions very seriously. Luckily, with the cross section of people living in the valley, we have a pool of excellent talent, excellent voices."

Since those auditions in September, cast members have rehearsed at least three times a week. And for the past three weeks, they have rehearsed six days a week.

"It’s a huge commitment," Wygle said.

Despite the rigorous rehearsal schedule, the cast and production staff became possessed of a kind of magic when pianist Dorinda Rendahl began playing during a rehearsal at Next Stage Theater last week. As the "Consider Yourself One of us" number began, facial expressions animated, accents turned British, and 60 voices harmonized.

"The songs are captivating," Wygle said. Lionel Bart adapted the Dickens novel, wrote the lyrics and composed the music. "We loved the music from the beginning. They’re catchy, fun songs."

Indeed, even siblings of cast members who were sidelined at the rehearsal were ignoring their school books and singing along.

While Bart’s music is enchanting, the story of Oliver is, of course, what ultimately captivates.

"It’s the universal story of the hungry kid," said JoEllen Collins, who teaches high school English at the Community School. "You can’t help but love Oliver. He tries to buck the system and he finagles his way through it. He manages."

It’s Victorian England but it’s still relevant today, Collins said.

"He’s writing about a segment of society that still exists," Collins said. "There’s still have-nots, still street kids. So it’s not beyond the imagination."

Dickens was a crusader for the rights of poverty-stricken children and fascinated with their plight, Collins said.

"He was really a social reformer," she said. "He loved looking at the underbelly of Victorian society in England."

A musical is a great vehicle to communicate the story of Oliver and reveal it to an audience that might not otherwise embrace Dickens’ writing, Collins said.

Bart’s adaptation retains the most important elements of Dickens’ plot, but the two villains become funnier, the gang of child thieves becomes lovable and the slums of London become less alcohol and drug ridden.

Oliver the musical opened in London in 1960 and came to Broadway three years later. After nearly 800 performances, it became the longest running musical import until Evita arrived in 1980.

Starring in Oliver are Sam Mott as Oliver, Will Hemmings as the Artful Dodger, Chad Stuart as Fagan, Gordon Noice as Sykes, Cheryl Morrel as Nancy, Steve D’Smith as Mr. Bumble and Patty Parsons as Widow Comey.

The performances are at 7:30 p.m. nightly from Nov. 5 to Nov. 10 at the opera house. Reserved seating tickets are available at Chapter One Bookstore in Ketchum. Tickets for adults are $18; children under 15 are $14. For more information, call 726-3576.


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