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Musical to be staged at Gardiner Middle School is result of partnership with OC Community Schools.

The streets of Victorian England come to life in Oregon City Children's Theatre's production of "Oliver Jr.," opening Nov. 4.

With a cast of 35 and crew of 12, all between the ages of 8 and 16, "Oliver Jr." runs through Nov. 12 at Gardiner Middle School, 205 Williams St., Oregon City. COURTESY PHOTO: BETH DODGE - Fagin's Gang members include, top left, Duckie (Natalie Watson) and Captain (Hazel Wharff); mid-left, Oliver (Declan Twiss), Dodger (Aidan Colvin) and Nipper (Terra Henney); and bottom right, Brains (Mara Gannon-Gonzales).

The plot revolves around Oliver, a malnourished orphan in a workhouse, who becomes the neglected apprentice of an undertaker. When Oliver escapes to London, he finds acceptance amongst a group of petty thieves and pickpockets, led by the elderly Fagin.  COURTESY PHOTO: BETH DODGE - Declan Twiss, 11, plays the title role in OCCT's upcoming production of 'Oliver Jr.'

The plot thickens when Oliver is captured for a theft that he did not commit. However, things look up for Oliver when Mr. Brownlow, the victim of the theft, takes him in.

Fearing the safety of his hideout, Fagin employs the sinister Bill Sikes and the sympathetic Nancy to kidnap Oliver, threatening the young boy's chances of discovering the true love of a family.

Oregon City Children's Theatre is a nonprofit organization committed to providing the opportunity of performing and learning stagecraft to any child who expresses the desire to learn it. What makes the program unique is that all aspects of the show, both onstage and off, are handled completely by children.

"Daring choice"

"Oliver," for a children's theatre, "is a daring choice based on the darker themes that surround the character's stories. Having the opportunity to guide young performers through those and watch them explore the themes in the safety of a staged production has been very rewarding," said Michelle Leigh, the director of the musical and the founder of Oregon City Children's Theatre.

"Oliver" had been at the back of Leigh's mind for years, but last year her daughter Beth Dodge, OCCT's artistic director, encouraged her to do the show.

"I don't know why it took me so long to go for it. Although I have discovered that timing is everything, and sometimes when I put a show off for whatever reason, the right group of children seem to be available and enthusiastically bring the production to life," Leigh said.

Declan Twiss

Decal Twiss plays the title character; he is 11 years old and attends Carus Elementary School in Oregon City. The musical marks his fourth show for OCCT.

"Ironically, Declan had told his mom after performing in 'Charlotte's Web' earlier this year, that he might do crew as he didn't think he could do the dancing and singing," Leigh said.

But when OCCT decided to form its first every Traveling Troupe, comprised of 20 children performing a musical theater review, Declan "found that he was not only good at the singing and dancing, he enjoyed it," Leigh said.

She added that when Declan auditioned for Oliver both in acting delivery and singing, he nailed it.

Other in the cast include Aidan Colvin as Dodger, Mckenzie Gilmore as Nancy, Brand Wells as Bill Sikes and Soren Bergstrom as Fagin.

They and the large ensemble "have put countless hours of work into their character choices, songs and stage fighting, the latter choreographed by the brilliant John Armor, who has been with OCCT since 2013," Leigh noted.

Challenges

"Musicals always come with multiple challenges, as there are so many areas to coordinate above and beyond staging and character development," Leigh said, including learning the music and choreography.

Luckily, Leigh noted, Music Theatre International provides fully orchestrated recorded music with their junior series. Typically, "Oliver" is a three-hour production, but the junior edition cuts the time down significantly and provides a full score. This allows theater groups like OCCT that can't afford a full orchestra, to provide a quality soundtrack to underscore the actors.

As for choreography, when working with children, that can go one of two ways, Leigh said.

"It can skim the surface of basics and present simple movement, or it can challenge and push them to achieve something they never thought possible."

She added that ever since her daughter took over the role of choreography in OCCT's 2011 production of "Annie Jr.," the bar has been raised.

"I have been so proud to watch this cast rise to the challenge and bring to life the amazingly catchy tunes that 'Oliver' brings to an audience," Leigh said.

Collaborations

Although "Oliver Jr." is being staged at Gardiner Middle School, the production is the result of a collaboration with Oregon City Community Schools.

"We met with the activities director Kristin Bean; she was wanting to add arts and theater programs to the roster, as she had come to realize during her first year in the position that not all children wanted sports programs," Leigh said.

She added that she was encouraged to work with the community schools program by Andrew Hancock, OCCT's new music director.

Leigh added that she and her daughter collaborated with Hancock, Gardiner Middle School's choir and theater teacher, on his annual production earlier this year.

"I have long admired Andrew and his energy and willing enthusiasm for choir and theater. I approached him and asked if we could do a swap: Beth would choreograph, I would assist the directors and in return he would work on 'Oliver Jr.'"

Since then, Hancock has "been a phenomenal part of our team and we are excited to help him again with his upcoming middle school production of 'Guys and Dolls' next spring," Leigh said.

New OCCT venue

This past summer, community schools hosted OCCT in providing three week-long camps, allowing 250 actors and tech-minded students to participant in the task of mounting a theater production in one week. OCCT now has begun the process of introducing classes for the school year.

"After our successful summer, we were offered the space that was available at Gardiner Middle School. The opportunity to perform in such a grand space was not one we could pass up," Leigh said.

"Although our time at the Oregon City Grange has meant a great deal and we will be forever grateful for their support and allowing us to continue our program there these past six years, we are beyond excited to build a full-scale set and allow more participants, as the space can accommodate it," she said.

Expanding programs

After being injured on the job in 2021, Leigh retired from full-time nursing and decided it was time to expand OCCT's programs.

She began a collaboration with community schools and opened talks for a future performing arts charter school in Oregon City.  COURTESY PHOTO: BETH DODGE - Oliver (Declan Twiss) and Fagin (Soren Bergstrom) share a moment in OCCT's upcoming production of 'Oliver Jr.'

"We are currently searching to lease and/or buy a building where we can grow our program with other children-focused groups in OC that can provide before, during and after-school programs that focus on family and community-driven events, such as theater, art, dance and ongoing activities," Leigh said.

She added, "We are excited about what the future could have for OCCT, and ways we could continue to serve the families and children of our communities."

'Oliver Jr.'

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4, 5, 11 and 12 and at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 5 and 12

Where: Gardiner Middle School, 205 Williams St., Oregon City

Tickets: Visit occtheatre.org for more information and to purchase $10 tickets

More: The production is directed by Michelle Leigh and choreographed by artistic director Beth Dodge; musical direction is by Andrew Hancock.


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