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By Josette Keelorfirstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- The story of "Oliver," Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre's last play this season, has endured for nearly 175 years because of its endearing story. Inspired by the book "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens and adapted for the stage by Lionel Bart, it offers a collection of memorable characters, according to the cast and crew at Shenandoah.
"The story is a wonderful Dickens tale of a poor orphan boy who finds his way into happiness," said director Hal Herman. "And the characters he meets on his journey turn out to be a bunch of rascals who are great fun."
The plot follows Oliver Twist, played by Henry Buchholz, 11, who escapes his life at a workhouse and then an undertaker's home in 19th-Century England only to fall in with a group of young thieves under the command of their boss, Fagin.
"He still maintains his good heart and, in the end, good things happen to him," said Robin Higginbotham, who plays Nancy. "He doesn't realize when he joins the pickpockets what they are. He has no idea."
Herman cast 20 children in roles playing orphans, but the majority of the main cast members are professional actors, many of whom have a history with the show.
Higginbotham played Nancy in the summer theater's production of "Oliver" 14 years ago. She said having played the role before did not help her too much this time around.
"Fourteen years is a long time to remember," she said.
In 1997, she acted opposite Rick Wesley, who played Bill Sikes then and will play him again this season.
"This will be my fourth time [in "Oliver"] all together," said Wesley. "It was the first full-length musical I've done."
In his first experience with the play, as a child, he played a pickpocket.
"I could shorthand it and say he's the bad guy, but he came up under Fagin's tutelage. He was a pickpocket," Wesley said. Sikes moved out on his own, he said, but he still has dealings with Fagin's group. "He's a threatening character."
Wesley, who was in last summer's "Seussical," is no stranger to playing roles more than once.
"The Cat in the Hat last year was the second time playing the Cat in the Hat," said Wesley, a Shenandoah Conservatory alumnus. He's also played the bad guy more than once before, as Jud Fry in "Oklahoma" and Jigger in "Carousel."
Bart Shatto, who plays Fagin, is new to the stage at Shenandoah, but he played Noah Claypole in a high school performance of "Oliver."
He hopes to instill much emotion into his role as Fagin.
"You never think that you're playing the bad guy. You think you're doing the right thing," Shatto said. "He's a quintessential businessman who found a great hook, you know, and he's earning a living just like the rest."
Fagin begins as a strictly business character, but when he meets Oliver, there's a shift, and he begins changing.
"There's just that duality of wanting to do the right thing," he said. "Fagin definitely struggles with that."
Nancy, too, the abused girlfriend of Sikes, has a lot of thinking to do. A former pickpocket for Fagin, she now works for herself but also helps Sikes, Higginbotham said.
"[She] loves him very much, too much," she said. He doesn't treat her well, but Wesley pointed out that she doesn't treat him well either.
"Yes they're abusive, but they're abusive to one another," he said.
"It's situations that are still prevalent," said choreographer Matthew Gose. "I mean, times haven't changed that much."
Wesley and Higginbotham both prepared for their roles by reading Dickens' book throughout the years.
"I always try to discover new things and reading the book sure helps," Higginbotham said.
Audience members should not expect the same performance from 14 years ago.
In 1997, Herman's wife, Lindee Hayden Herman directed, and Herman played Fagin, Higginbotham said.
"It'll be different with Harold," she said.
Also, last time an actress in the ensemble played the Artful Dodger, this time played by 12-year-old Timothy Boyer.
"It's a bit of a challenge, you know, kids work and process things differently than adults do," Gose said. "Our Oliver and Artful Dodger are really very good, really quick studies, so that is helpful."
The cast and crew stressed that "Oliver" is a family-friendly production.
"And the score is really remarkable," said Wesley.
"This is a really timeless piece," Shatto said.
"It's definitely a roller coaster through this boy's life," Higginbotham said.
"It's a very moving, it's a very gripping [show,]" Gose said, "and definitely come out to see it."