Babirra Brings 'Oliver!' Back to the Stage
With only a little over a week before opening night, the director and cast for Babirra's upcoming production of Oliver! discuss their thoughts on this award winning musical.
In 1838 the great novelist and social commentator, Charles Dickens published his now classic tale, “Oliver Twist”, in which he presented a critique on economic and social issues in Victorian England, including poverty, social-class, child labour and crime.
In 1960 Dickens' classic was adapted into a musical by writer and composer Lionel Bart, who introduced colour and musical numbers into the story while still maintaining its dark themes and core values. The show was an instant smash hit and went on to receive numerous nominations and Tony Awards, as did its 1968 film adaptation which won many Golden Globe and Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Score.
Currently Babirra Music Theatre Inc, who has been active in Victoria since the mid 1950s and presents two musicals annually, is hard at work perfecting its own version of this popular musical, working with its diverse and talented cast of performers (an age group that ranges from 7 to over 70 years old) in preparation for a performance season that runs from June 1st-10th. .
According to Oliver's director, Sue Salvato, a reason for Oliver's popularity worldwide is that it’s a “typical fairy tale example of the underdog who despite many sufferings and tribulations, eventually manages to emerge the winner” .
The musical's focus is on Oliver Twist, a young orphan who after being ejected from a workhouse becomes involved with a guild of child thieves who are encouraged to commit offences by several adults. In Babirra's Production, Oliver is portrayed by 11 year-old Jordie Race-Coldrey, whose 12 Birthday coincides with opening night. Jordie's imagination and creativity saw him creating his own shows at home from the age of three, and since the age of five has been further developing his skills by studying at The Drama Company.
With aspirations of one day becoming a professional performer and a love for musical theatre, Jordie's choice to audition for Oliver was an easy decision. “I love the music, I love the different shades in the show – comedy, happiness, darkness and some really scary parts,” he exclaims. “I also love the dances. I haven’t done a lot of dance in the past and it has been lots of fun learning it all”.
To prepare for his roll, Jordie says that he has watched the film relentlessly (suggesting up to a thousands viewings) as well as working on his British accent by talking as politely as possible while mixing in a little inspiration from the accents used in Mary Poppins and Billy Elliot to perfect it further.
In regards to his character, Jordie describes Oliver as different to many of the show’s other characters as he is a “very naive, polite and subtle” orphan who “gets roped into a world of crime”.
Introducing Oliver to a criminal career is child pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, and Fagin, an elderly criminal mastermind portrayed by Peter Roberts, whose previous theatre credits include several classic underworld figures such as Nathan Detroit and Thenardier.
For Peter, Oliver brings back childhood memories of performing the classic song “Consider Yourself At Home” in his home-made Dodger outfit in front of two tee-pees and a camp fire on the Perth TV talent show Stars of the Future. (“I didn't win”, he jokes).
Peter says that by embracing the character's values (rather than judging them for questionable decision and career choices) and by “interpreting the text within the vision of the director (Sue Salvato)” he hopes to distinguish his portrayal of Fagin from the many others who have historically played this famous character. “A role as well known as this one has its history and expectations based on the men who have played it before. I hope their discoveries are there, but I hope I’ve made it Pete’s Fagin too,” explains Peter.
He further describes Fagin as a historical equivalent of an “Apple sweatshop manager in a third world country”, who ensures that his workers are “better off with him than on the streets, as long as he makes a profit of course” and whose secure lifestyle becomes compromised shortly after meeting Oliver.
Working alongside Fagin is the dangerous sociopath and expert burglar, Bill Sykes who ultimately sees Oliver as a threat to his way of life. Accompanying Bill throughout most of the musical is his his warmer and more sympathetic girlfriend, Nancy played by Rosa McCarty, who describes the rehearsal atmosphere as “supportive”, “encouraging” and “very enjoyable”. “Babirra has a strong sense of community, and the overall importance of musical theatre in Victoria. The wonderfully dedicated people working behind the scenes, production team, and cast have made the whole process a real pleasure”, she says.
Regarding her role as Nancy, Rosa says her performance has been influenced by Dicken's Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities, which have provided a greater insight into her character's personality and the hardships of the era.
“Nancy is a complex woman, whose life is completely shaped by her circumstances,” says Rosa. “She has a strong moral compass, is fiercely loyal, loving and compassionate despite having grown up in a life of crime and abject poverty”.
According to Rosa, Nancy's story, personality and musical numbers make her “one of the quintessential female roles in musical theatre” with the character torn between loyalty to Bill and doing what is right in protecting Oliver from his cruelty. “Nancy loves Bill unconditionally – it gives her purpose and meaning. Therefore she will tolerate his abuse – convincing herself that he needs her”, she says. “As dangerous as Bill is – what other option does she have? In Oliver, Nancy sees goodness and purity – thus she does everything she can to prevent him from being corrupted. Nancy is loyal to Fagin, but ultimately will betray him to save Oliver”.
Director Sue Salvato says that Oliver's overall themes are still relevant to contemporary society and include “survival, money, power and the hypocrisy of some of the powerful and the struggle of the underprivileged”.
Though this is her first time working with Babirra, Sue has directed an impressive array of shows which she has happily crossed off her own personal wish list. These past credits include Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Sweet Charity, A Chorus Line, West Side Story, Boy from Oz and Jesus Christ Superstar (“There are still a few left in the wish list” says Sue).
Inspired by Dickens' original works and his treatment of the story's characters and settings, Sue says that she hopes “the audience embraces Oliver’s journey and his interaction with the various characters which are mini stories within the complex theme of the show. The audience can expect to see loads of enthusiasm, energy, colour, and hopefully shed a small tear at the end”.
Oliver! runs from Friday 1st to Sunday 10th of June at the Whitehorse Centre, (Rear Whitehorse Civic Centre), 397 Whitehorse Road, Nunawading Vic.
To book tickets phone 03 9262 6555 or visit http://www.babirra.org.au/html/bookingmain.htm for other booking options.
Director: Sue Salvato
Musical Director: Ryan Jacobs
Choreographers: Cameron O'Reailly and Lisa-Maree David