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Arts Association's 'Oliver!' features cast of 120

Arts Association’s ‘Oliver!’ features cast of 120

“Oliver!” cast members, bottom from left, Dakota Philips as Nancy, Jackson Grady as Oliver, Rebekah Emerson as Bet, top from left, Andrew Fish as Dodger, Dillon Diamond as Fagin and Jacob Emerson as Mr. Brownlow, strike a pose on the musical’s set, which includes a catwalk that spans the entire stage at Porter Auditorium, in the old Newton High School. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

“Oliver!” cast members, bottom from left, Dakota Philips as Nancy, Jackson Grady as Oliver, Rebekah Emerson as Bet, top from left, Andrew Fish as Dodger, Dillon Diamond as Fagin and Jacob Emerson as Mr. Brownlow, strike a pose on the musical’s set, which includes a catwalk that spans the entire stage at Porter Auditorium, in the old Newton High School. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)

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“Oliver!” logo

The annual spring musical from the Oxford Singing Children and Oxford Youth Singers is being produced under considerably different circumstances than past shows.

For starters, “Oliver!” will be staged nearly a month before the spring musical generally takes place. The Arts Association in Newton County will present “Oliver!” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 27, Friday, March 28 and Saturday, March 29, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 30. All shows will be in the Porter Auditorium at the old Newton High School.

“We’re doing it a little earlier this spring than usual because Easter is so late,” musical director Mary Lynn Luke said.

“Usually, we do our show the third weekend of April, but Easter is the third week of April, so we had to bump it way up to the end of March this year. It’s been challenging but we knew last May or June that this was coming so we were able to plan for it and move everything up about three weeks.”

In recent years, there have been separate productions by the OSC (grades 4-7) and the OYS (grades 8-12), but this season’s musical will feature the combined talents of both groups, some 120 performers.

“We chose ‘Oliver!’ because we wanted to combine the younger choir and older choir into one production,” Luke said.

“In previous years, we would prepare two separate productions for back-to-back weekends — two ‘Greases,’ two ‘Guys & Dolls,’ two ‘Hello, Dollys.’ Last year, we did two separate productions — ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ for the young group and ‘Les Miserables’ for the older group.

“It’s a huge project either way, but two productions back to back is always tricky. This one is tricky because we have about 120 kids, so we’re trying to get that many students into one production. Last year we had about 60 in ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ and about 70 in ‘Les Mis.’ It’s a lot of orphans and pickpockets, but we’re making it work.”

“Oliver!” is based on the famed Charles Dickens book “Oliver Twist” and the 1968 film, which was based on the 1960 musical play that opened in London’s West End. The film version of “Oliver!” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The music and lyrics, written by Lionel Bart, contains a healthy number of memorable tunes, including “Food, Glorious Food,” “Where is Love,” “Consider Yourself” and “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.”

Because there are no longer multiple groups sharing the Porter Auditorium, Luke said the musical’s technical crew has been able spend more time in the space, creating a different kind of set.

“We’ve got a two-story set on the stage to help create different levels for that many students,” Luke said. “It also works well because there’s a scene at the end where they’re on a bridge, so it works to have a second story. And some scenes can be played up above. We’ve got a catwalk that goes along the entire stage. That alleviates congestion.”

Two middle-school students will be sharing the titular role of Oliver Twist and each will take the role for two of the four performances. Duncan Jordan, a sixth grader at Cousins Middle School in Covington, will be Oliver for two performances, and Jackson Grady, a seventh-grade student from Eastminster School in Conyers, will cover the other productions.

“I teach Jackson at Eastminster and I knew he was very talented — a good little singer and actor,” Luke said. “I invited him to come join our group to do ‘Oliver!.’ And when Duncan and Jackson aren’t playing Oliver, they’ll be in other roles.”

“Oliver!” not only marks Luke’s 10th anniversary with the OSC and the OYS, but it also marks a decade of collaboration with Jay Tryall, who is the show’s director and choreographer. In addition to working with the two ensembles, Tryall works as the director for stage productions at Stone Mountain Park and is also in rehearsals as a cast member for the New Depot Players’ staging of “Dearly Department” in late April in Olde Town Conyers.

Suffice it to say, Luke and Tryall go back a long way.

“When Jay was in high school, I was his show choir director,” Luke said. “I taught at Heritage and he went to Salem, but he was in Class Act, and I was one of the directors of that group. That’s where I first knew Jay and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.

“My very first year here with the Oxford Singing Children and Oxford Youth Singers, we were doing the ‘Music Man’ and I got to where I needed some directing help. Blocking and staging is not my strongest area, so Jay’s little brother was in the group and I called him.

“He came to help me because his little brother was in the group and he never left. It’s awesome. He likes it and he’s gotten better every year. He’s had opportunities to do other things but it would mean he’d have to quit working with us. So far, he hasn’t accepted any of those offers. He’s very talented and I feel lucky to have him with us.”

Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for students. For ticket information on “Oliver!” call 770-786-8188 or visitnewtoncountyarts.org.

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens. To contact him, email cstarrs90@charter.net.