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Parents, siblings work together to bring classic Charles Dickens tale to life

If you go

What: Eastside Theater Company presents the Charles Dickens-based musical "Oliver!"

When: Thursday, June 6 through Sunday, Sunday, June 16 (see website or call for times)

Where: Springwater Church, 3445 S.E. Hillyard Road, Gresham

Admission: $14 for adults; $11.50 for students/seniors; $2 discount for online purchase

Visit: www.eastsidetheater.com/ or call 971-231-5032 for tickets and times

COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - From left, Eastside Theater Co.'s double-cast actors Isaiah Johnson, Julia Kassing, Alissa Cohen and Amanda Bjorklund dress in Victorian England period finery for their roles in Oliver!One of the things director Liz Bertsch likes about Eastside Theater Company's upcoming production of "Oliver!" is how many of the play's Victorian England-based themes still resonate in the 21st century.

"The classic story of 'Oliver Twist' is one of (British author) Charles Dickens' great works that we still find many, many parallels today," she says. "The things he was drawing light to years ago still exist in some capacity in the modern world: exploited children, domestic abuse, people being reunited with their families — these all occur in the story of "Oliver!"

This musical adaptation of "Oliver Twist" portrays the tale of a boy who runs away from an orphanage and hooks up with a group of other boys trained by the Artful Dodger and masterminded by the shady Fagin. When Mr. Brownlow, Oliver's intended victim, takes the boy under his wing and brings him home, Fagin's henchman Bill Sikes plot to kidnap the boy to keep him silent.

Things get hairy — and violent — quickly after Nancy, Sikes' complicated girlfriend, intervenes on Oliver's behalf.

Eastside Theater Company presents "Oliver!" in 10 performances at various times between June 6-16 at the Springwater Church, 3445 S.E. Hillyard Road, Gresham. (see sidebar for details)

Another aspect Bertsch enjoys about Eastside's latest project is the family orientation of its cast. That's literally, as in three or four partial and one complete family — moms, dads, sons, daughters — rehearsing and performing together.

"One (cast) set is all siblings except one adult," Bertsch says. "Also there's a husband-wife-son set, a mother, two sons and her daughter, a single mother and three of her five children are in the show. And there is a complete family: husband, wife, daughter and son.

One of the families in Eastside's production is Bertsch's very own.

"I'm the director of the show, my mother is the musical director, and my father and five of my six brothers are performing in the show," she says, emphasizing the cast's familial makeup was basically a happy accident. "There was no precasting. The dice just came out that way."

With a total cast of 60, including two sets of actors "double cast" in principal roles, Bertsch has found the family chemistry works well during rehearsals.

"The expectations are pretty clear," she says. "If you're not a director, don't give direction. That's in the contract for (actors) to sign. There have been no interpersonal problems."

COURTESY PHOTO: EASTSIDE THEATER CO.  - From left, Ezra Johnson (Oliver Twist), Sidra Cohen-Mallon (Artful Dodger), Jessie Turner (Nancy) and Josh Johnson (Bill Sikes, Fagin) are doubling the Oliver! roles played, respectively, by Amanda Bjorklund, Alissa Cohen, Julia Kassing and Isiah Johnson.  Despite the parallel themes in "Oliver" between Victorian England and 2019, Eastside is shooting for authenticity on this one.

"We're working really hard to keep everything really period," Bertsch says. "The costume choices and set design are very close to the period-best we can. There's lots of lively bright colors that match the lively bright music in the show, and there are lots of good dancers."

Now, about that double-casting thing.

"Casting for this show is special this go-round," Bertsch notes. "The principal characters Oliver, Nancy, Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes and Fagin are all double cast."

Oliver Twist is played by both Amanda Bjorklund and Ezra Johnson. Alissa Cohen and Sidra Cohen-Mallon share the role of the Artful Dodger. Eastside Theater Company graduates Jessie Turner and Julie Kassing portray Nancy, and Josh Johnson and Isaiah Johnson are each playing the characters of Bill Sikes and the evil Fagin.

"When one of the cast sets perform (Amanda, Alissa and Julia), then Josh will play the role of Bill Sikes while Isaiah is Fagin, and then visa-versa when the other cast set (Ezra, Sidra, and Jessie) takes the stage," Bertsch explains. "Each of the two combinations of the five principal characters will get to perform their lead role five times."

Regarding the play's violent episode involving Nancy, Bertsch issues a disclaimer for those bringing small children or who may be more sensitive.

"In our program we have an indicator for when there are moments of strong intensity, physical abuse (and) violence, for people to excuse themselves from the auditorium," she says.

As always, scheduling rehearsals in the spring — with competition from sports, concerts, graduations, award ceremonies and such — has proved a challenge.

"Other than that," Bertsch says, "everything is coming together beautifully."


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