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'Oliver' takes the stage at Peoria Players

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Bryan Blanks believes the best musicals, whether they are classic or modern, are those that not only entertain you, but open your mind.

He has both with "Oliver!," the smash classic musical that opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Peoria Players Theatre at University and Lake streets. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Feb. 12, 13, 14 and 15 and 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 16.

Blanks, who is fast becoming a veteran director in local community theatre, said "Oliver!" ranks among his favorites for that reason. "When I look at my favorite classic musicals "Oliver!," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Carousel" among them there is a common thread. Musicals ahead of their time explored some very serious issues and themes, but were clever enough to couple the story with a beautiful score and interesting characters that keep the show entertaining," he said.

"In my opinion the best musicals entertain, but still force you to think," he added.

Based on the novel "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens, the musical, with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, tells the story of the title character and other ragamuffins in London in the early 1800s. After escaping an orphanage Oliver hooks up with the Artful Dodger and the other boys who are taught to be pickpockets by the evil Fagin.

Songs from the show include "Consider Yourself," "I'd Do Anything," "Where is Love," "Oom-Pah-Pah" and "As Long As He Needs Me."

The 14-piece orchestra for the Peoria Players production is directed by Holly Haines, a music teacher in Washington who is in her first stint as musical director for a main stage show.

"Oliver!" is energetic, from the opening song "Food Glorious Food" performed by about 30 children portraying orphans waiting for their daily gruel. Blanks choreographed the number himself.

"I had a clear vision that having a large number of kids all synchronized in step as subjects of the oppressive leadership would have a strong impact," he said. "These kids were treated like machinery, or animals if you may. Having a large number of kids shows the mass of children who were affected by poverty and child abandonment during these terrible times."

Blanks split the choreography with Dedra Kaiser and there are several large dance numbers in the show, with "Consider Yourself" chief among them.

He praised the orchestra, as well. "It's phenomenal; the best I've worked with, and much of this is to Holly's credit. The orchestration for our show has never been heard on the local level. We re-orchestrated many of the numbers to match the London revival," he said.

Some of the pieces are far from easy, including the last solo, "Reviewing the Situation," when Fagin mulls his future.

The character of Fagin drives this musical and Blanks cast local veteran performer Chip Joyce in the role of the elderly bad guy. Joyce is in the early 30s.

Said Blanks, "Fagin is ultimately the male character role of all character roles. I decided before auditions it was more important to have a strong actor who could handle the balance of Fagin's mystery and subtly coupled it with his energy and vocal ability. As long as a young actor could get lost in the role of Fagin, the audience will forget his age.

"Chip has truly become Fagin. It is eerie sometimes to watch, which is perfect."

The title role of Oliver is portrayed by Julien Rouleau and his friend the Artful Dodger is portrayed by Jake Trueblood. Both were familiar to Blanks, who has worked with children's theatre for several years. But it did not make his task of casting the show any easier, he said.

Because of his experience with children's theatre, he said, "recruiting wasn't as difficult as it may have been for other directors. However, there is so much talent to choose from. With close to 150 people auditioning for the show I had to cut many performers I had worked with in the past."

Ayana Pankey portrays Nancy, a friend to Fagin and his boys, and Deric Kimler plays Bill Sykes, the man she loves despite his evil ways.

Others in the cast include Laura Miller-Monsoori as Bet, Curt Rowden as Mr. Bumble, Wendy Blickenstaff as Widow Corney, Anita Rowden as Mrs. Bedwin, George Maxedon as Mr. Sowerberry, Ahava Pyrtel as Mrs. Sowerberry, Susan Knobloch as Charlotte Sowerberry, Aaron Elwell as Noah Claypole, Jim Willard as Mr. Brownlow and Jim Babrowski as Dr. Grimwig.

Soloists in the song "Who Will Buy" are Melissa Blain, Catherine Barnett, Emily Rusk and Jeremy Kelly.

Tickets for "Oliver!" are $18 for adults and $12 for 18 and under. Adult tickets for the Wednesday, Feb. 12 performance are $15.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).