Oliver comes to life on the G.W. Graham stage

A cast of 63 perform Oliver, The Musical in Chilliwack from May 25 to June 4 at G.W. Graham Theatre.

Richard Ogilvie as Mr. Bumble scorns Tanner Biegel as Oliver when he begs

Richard Ogilvie as Mr. Bumble scorns Tanner Biegel as Oliver when he begs

G.W. Graham Theatre, in collaboration with Newbury Art Concepts, is poised to present Oliver, The Musical May 25 to June 4.

It’s the third time the two artistic entities have united, and it’s to a larger scale than they’ve ever done before.

This community musical project is made up of 63 cast members, ranging from those in kindergarten to those in their 70s.

“It’s quite the diverse group of people, but they’re a like-minded group of people,” director Randy Newbury said. Each are singing, dancing and acting their hearts out for the common goal of putting on a spectacular show.

Back at audition time in January, Randy and producer Damon Fultz were greeted by a large crowd of budding actors. From the beginning, Randy and his wife Susan knew that one of the greatest appeals of community theatre, and a story like Oliver in particular, is that they provide an opportunity for people of all ages and experience levels to get involved.

However, they knew that it would come with its added challenges as well.

Unlike a student production where the director can organize rehearsals during class or school breaks, such a diverse group of cast members meant a wide range of lifestyles to align. Working parents, retirees, teens and young children raced from their other priorities to make it to warm-ups on time.

But it’s all worth it, Randy says.

Vibrant and energetic young actors are learning alongside their accomplished adult counterparts, who have the accumulated life experiences that allow them to portray adult characters to their fullest potential.

Lisa Hahn, who plays Nancy, mentored her young scene-mates in key theatrical tools like expression, animation and how to truly become their characters to shine on stage.

Playing Mr. Bumble, Richard Ogilvie’s voice thunders across the stage as he reprimands young Oliver, played by Tanner Biegel, for daring to ask for more food in an iconic early scene.

The age-accurate casting adds further depth to what is already a story that carries more weight than meets the eye.

“Yes, the story of Oliver is about an orphan boy who – yes – finds that there is a light, and a hope. But there are so many different sub-plots underneath this story,” Randy explained.

It showcases both the affluent society and the dirty desperation that co-existed in London in the 1850s, at the dawn of the industrial age.

Rousing musical numbers like ‘Food, Glorious Food’ and ‘Consider Yourself’ bring a cheerful joy that many will expect from Oliver, and witnessing a cast of 63 performing those numbers with all they’ve got is a thrill in itself.

“If you love theatre, you’re gonna love that,” Randy said. But audience members will also be floored by how honest and raw the dark side of the story becomes, drawing into such difficult subjects as misery, death and spousal abuse.

As they beautifully blend joy with despair, all involved tell the story with passion and dignity.

“Theatre is made for the people who don’t quite fit in. They thrive in these environments. And I was one of those kids,” Randy said.

Back when he was a teenager, Randy admitted that he joined the cast of Oliver as Bill Sykes to spend more time with and be noticed by Susan, who has also been a lifelong theatre-buff.

But as always, the bonds formed on stage quickly grow to those of a family.

“These kids – they live on it. They get so involved, accepted and loved. And then it’s over,” Randy said. Show nights are bittersweet for everyone who takes part, as it is the culmination of months of dedicated work, but also the end.

As the Oliver team hits the stage for opening night tonight and each performance for the next two weeks, audiences will be delighted by the celebration and hardship within this iconic story, and the production quality that takes it to the next level.

Audiences will be immersed in English culture from the moment they enter the lobby, and even more so in the theatre as actors perform their way beyond the impressive brick-walled sets and staircases on stage, out into the aisles.

Susan has been hosting sewing parties to create 190 individual costumes, including recognizable get-ups for Fagin, Mr. Bumble and the Artful Dodger himself.

Musical director Debbie Wilson has trained each cast member to grow in their vocal range, tone and clarity as they’ve perfected dozens of numbers.

Choreographer Shelly Wojcik brought her expertise to the stage to ensure everyone gets moving with the right foot at the right time as they take on complex lifts, energetic high kicks and dizzying spins.

The audience will also be able to see the talented orchestra, lead by Adam Van Loo, as they peer through the windows that have been opened up to expose the pit underneath the stage.

“Every school and theatre group in the world [performs] Oliver, but few people show it for what it truly is,” Randy said. “It’s a story of love, and denial, and hatred.”

“When the lights come on, you’ll be swept away.”

Oliver, The Musical runs at G.W. Graham Theatre (45955 Thomas Rd.) May 25 to 27 at 7:30 p.m., May 28 to 29 at 2 p.m., June 1 to 3 at 7:30 p.m., and June 4 at 2 p.m.

General seating tickets are $15 for adults or $12 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at G.W. Graham (604-847-0772) or through the Chilliwack Community Arts Council (604-769-2787).