You've got to pick an orphan or two ...

If you want to pack a house, pick a show with an abundance of kiddie roles. Each child is good for probably 10 adult tickets. If you want a full house, make said kids orphans (I’m looking at you, Annie). Works every time.

That should make finding a seat for this weekend’s production of “Oliver” at Norwich High School a difficult task, but I assure you it’s well worth the effort. Being the cold-hearted cynic that I am, it takes a lot more than a group of parentless ragamuffins to get me to come to a show. Having seen “Oliver” in dress rehearsal Wednesday night, it’s the talent that makes me say, “Please sir, can I have some more?”

I made a lot in my story in yesterday’s Evening Sun about the “multi-generational” aspect of staging “Oliver” – in that while all the roles are played by kids, they’re not necessarily high school kids. It’s a risk that I’m sure made director Mark Sands’ hair even grayer than mine, but it certainly pays off here. Like a discerning sports coach grooming kids from peewee to jayvee, Sands is cultivating his future high school stars from middle school.

One such future star is pretty obvious – sixth grader Tyler Roberts plays the title role of everyone’s favorite and much-coveted orphan. I interviewed him last week, and he’s a brave little boy, more than holding his own against his much “older” co-stars. He’s working on building quite the stage presence, and his singing chops show through in the number, “Where is Love?” Little Oliver is surrounded by a gaggle of orphans and pickpockets played by his middle school classmates, many of them acting their little hearts out.

It occurred to me after I wrote yesterday’s preview article that I forgot to tell the uninitiated what “Oliver” was all about. In a Dickens nutshell, little orphan Oliver gets booted out of the parish workhouse for having the audacity to ask for more gruel, and is subsequently sold into white slavery before turning to a life of crime. But then he gets really lucky and finds out he was rich all along. Close enough.

Running the parish poorhouse are the bombastic Mr. Bumble (Galen Morehead) and his consort, Widow Corney (Erin McMahon). These two make one of a pair of comedy relief couples in “Oliver” and do so with gusto. Morehead is appropriately blustery, and McMahon shines (and screams) in “I Shall Scream.” I’ve enjoyed this girl on the Tornado stage before, and I dare say she’s Norwich’s own Marissa Jaret Winokur. During Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal, Galen and Erin were forced to awkwardly draw out the end of that number while Oliver dealt with a wardrobe malfunction backstage. They call it “vamping” in the biz, and these two deserved the applause they got for grace under pressure.

The other half of the quirky couple set is the dour duo of Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, the undertakers to whom Oliver is temporarily sold. They’re played here by besties Ethan Steers and Hayley Chwazik-Gee, who knock ‘em dead, literally, in “That’s Your Funeral.”

The not-so-fun couple in “Oliver” is of course Bill Sikes and Nancy, whose domestic abuse scenario plays out in little Mr. Twist’s fate. Matt Robinson, who plays Bill, assured me when I interviewed him that he’s a nice guy, and that everyone likes him in real life. I’ll take his word for it, but judging by his menacing performance here (he tears through “My Name”), I’d say he’s likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ll admit that between the time I interviewed the kids and the night I saw the show, I couldn’t quite place Katrina Daoud’s face with the name, and I was hoping I’d recognize her once Nancy appeared on stage. Silly me. From the moment she enters, you know she’s the one to watch. Some kids have star appeal, others have it thrust upon them. Miss Daoud hits this one out of the park. She even made me tolerate “Oom-Pah-Pah.”

While Oliver eventually finds his “real” family, they’re not nearly as interesting or colorful as his temporary faux family among the pickpockets of London. He’s first befriended by Jack Dawkins, aka The Artful Dodger, played this weekend by Robert Harris. Is it just me, or does Harris look vaguely British? Regardless, he’s a revelation in the role – he’s playful and engaging, charming in that rapscallion way the Dodger should be.

Equally as charming, but in a far greasier way, is Dodger and Oliver’s mentor, the nefarious Fagin, played to perfection by Chris Kappel. The last production I saw of “Oliver” had an adult playing the role of Fagin among a group of kids, which makes sense. What Kappel is able to do is make it appear that way here as well – you’d never guess by his performance that he’s the same age (relatively) as his co-stars. Fagin’s all charm and wit on the outside, but Kappel nails his inner Grinch with a smarmy set of mannerisms. Kid’s got skills.

They all do, really. I’m never less than amazed by the efforts put forth by high school thespians in bringing these productions from auditions to opening night with such style and diligence. So yeah, even if you don’t have a connection to one of the 1,453 kids on stage in “Oliver,” I’d implore you to “Consider Yourself” one of the family and go enjoy it for yourself – show times are tonight and Saturday at 7:30, with a matinee Sunday at 3, in the Norwich High School Auditorium. Tickets are $5 at the door.

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