Gin in a tin. Laps and slaps. London pubs and billy clubs (a teen in a top hat was kind enough to tell me the correct term is “jemmy”). I was transported to mid-19th century London Friday night thanks to the combined creativity of Charles Dickens, Lionel Bart and D. Scott Withers.
Withers is directing Oliver!, which runs through Dec. 20th at Stagebrush Theatre in Scottsdale. It’s the first production by Greasepaint Youtheatre since its formal affiliation with Phoenix Theatre, Arizona’s oldest arts organization (founded in 1920). But this blog isn’t focused on mere facts. It’s all about a feeling.
It’s the feeling you get when the audience begins to gasp and giggle just five minutes into the show. It’s the feeling you get when your child takes the stage donning a worn out shawl or knickers and tussled hair surrounding a face speckled with cosmetic coal. It’s the feeling you get when the folks sitting on either side of you begin to clap along as the ensemble sings and dances through classics like “Oom Pah Pah” and “Consider Yourself.”
Oliver! opened Friday night to the most enthusiastic theater audience I have seen—anywhere—for a youth or adult production. Were the stage a bit bigger, I might have mistaken it for a touring Broadway show at ASU Gammage.
One mother, dubbed a “momager” by her teenage son, recalls seeing the musical a good ten times, on Broadway and elsewhere—and hails it as the best production she’s ever seen. Fact or feeling? I’m not sure it matters. I swelled with the same pride. Our children were in their bliss.
A common theme emerged as I talked with opening night attendees after the show: Every cast member was 100%. Among the first to notice was Toby Yatso, an associate artist with Phoenix Theatre who also teaches at Arizona School for the Arts, directs the Greasepaint LIVE performance troupe and loves cats. He was especially impressed by the cast’s (not cats’) focus and energy, calling their performance “awesome!”
The live music, including various percussion pieces, brought real depth. The lights fostered an atmosphere of suspense amidst a familiar story line. The choreography drew the audience in with enthusiasm. Every singer was truly talented. Every dancer crisp and compelling. Every line delivered in convincing Cockney dialect.
Everything screamed “These people are professionals!” Even the kids, a delightful mix of new faces and seasoned actors, gushed over the extravagant set detail and true period costuming when I chatted with them backstage on Saturday. They seemed equally excited about their development as actors and their deepening understanding of another place and time. The audience was clearly appreciative, going into standing ovation mode at the onset of the curtain call rather than waiting for actors in the lead roles to take their bows.
I chatted a bit with the cast about the larger meaning they’re taking from the show. One of the younger performers talked about his realization that a person facing hard times isn’t necessarily a bad person. This was mirrored in lobby displays addressing the topic of homelessness.
While some bulletin boards described the origins of things like afternoon tea and newsboy caps, others examined the causes of homelessness and Valley organizations making a difference for homeless youth and families. I love the way so many Phoenix Theatre and Greasepaint Youtheatre productions leave me feeling more educated and empowered.
So who are these amazing youth? Here’s just a brief sampling of some of their credits: American Idol Hollywood finals. Edinburgh International Fringe Festival. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for Broadway Across America-Arizona. Performances with Hale Centre Theatre, Valley Youth Theatre, Stray Cat Theatre, Broadway Palm Dinner Theater, Childsplay, Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre, Arizona Opera and more.
Add to this their academic achievements and leadership positions, such as senior class president and national honor society member, and you begin to fathom the true depth of their character. I’m struck, awe-struck really, by the hard work that must have gone into taking this production from audition to opening night. That these talented youth can master their lines as well as their homework is inspiring. That’s a fact.
So what keeps them going? Christopher Moffitt (Oliver) says he’s always learning something new, meeting new people and growing more confident in the public speaking skills he expects to use for a lifetime. Tyler Pounds (Bill Sykes) says he’s become more responsible and physically fit thanks to theater. The brevity of blogging prevents me from sharing the reflections of every cast member here—but perhaps more comments will find their way into future posts.
Young cast members were every bit as charming off-stage as on-stage (Please, kids, never lose this quality). When they weren’t in a particular scene, they’d wait calmly and courteously in the green room. Older and younger cast members mingled as they played board games or cards. The kids doing homework took turns using a single pencil they found on a table and helping each other brainstorm ideas for upcoming school papers and projects. One boy sat sideways in a chair, aided by a friend as he wrote his own play. The floor was uncluttered except for a stray UGG boot and tennis shoe or two.
Watching them act, and interact, I felt hope. Hope that the future of community theater is in good hands. Hope that they’ll enjoy enriching school, work and life experiences. Hope that they will transform the arts just as the arts are transforming them.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about homelessness in Arizona and ways you can make a difference, consider contacting one or more of these organizations: StandUp, Helping Hands Housing Services, UMOM New Day Center, Open Table, CASS and Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development.