Twisting ‘Oliver!’

Human Race prepares fresh look at classic musical

Lionel Bart’s legendary 1960 musical “Oliver!,” adapted from Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel “Oliver Twist,” is undergoing a makeover at the Human Race Theatre Company.

Beginning Thursday and already extended to Dec. 22, the Human Race will present an intimate, reimagined “Oliver!” fashioned for only 10 actors, a significant change of pace for a show typically cast in large numbers. The production — conceived and directed by Alan Souza with choreography by Spencer Liff and music direction by Helen Gregory — is set in a tavern on Christmas Eve in 1838 London. In the spirit of traditional British music hall entertainment, a group of working-class individuals re-enact the musical, launching the intriguing framework of two worlds coalescing.

“The great tradition of pantomime came out of the music hall format,” said Souza, who staged the Human Race’s 2008 local premiere of “Ears on a Beatle.” “In this case, because of the ‘Oliver Twist’ mania that existed since it was the ‘Harry Potter’ of its day, we decided to take the leap. This concept is very busy and complex for the actors. They’re playing characters in a tavern that take on multiple roles in the telling of ‘Oliver Twist.’ The concept is still enveloping itself, but the cast will likely play a great majority of the piece as the people in the tavern, characters that would have existed in the story. Since Dickens wrote about social struggles — the welfare of women and children, the horrible conditions of the workhouses, the haves and have nots — it allows a feel for life imitating art and vice versa because the characters in this production are the characters he was writing about.”

“Anytime we approach something that has name recognition, we always try to find a new way of telling the story,” Human Race producing artistic director Kevin Moore said. “With the exception of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone,’ we’ve never really been about re-creating a show exactly the way it’s been done somewhere else. I like the fact that we can have really creative people find a new way to tell a story.”

Who Knows What We May Find?

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The Human Race’s staging of “Oliver!” coincides with the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth.

Although the story of the orphaned Oliver has its share of joyful, touching moments thanks to such tuneful treasures as “Food, Glorious, Food,” “Where is Love?,” “Consider Yourself” and “As Long As He Needs Me,” it remains a compelling, grim account of hypocrisy, poverty, thievery and violence. Moore has encouraged Souza, Liff and Gregory to dig deeper into the material to restore a sense of realism that is often oddly ignored, he said.

“‘Oliver Twist’ is a dark story, but it’s also been candy-coated,” he said. “What Alan, Spencer and Helen have done is remove some of the candy-coat. They have exposed more of what I believe Dickens was in his commentary. We’re still going to give audiences the ‘Oliver!’ ride, but we’ve just turned the lights down a little bit.”

“Nothing happens in our production that doesn’t happen in ‘Oliver Twist,’” Souza said. “But it’s important to examine why a piece like ‘Oliver’ endures for over 50 years. For instance, ‘My Fair Lady’ has worked for years in theaters and high schools across the country, but if I were involved, I would have to ask myself what I could bring to the table to tell the story authentically for the audience I’m telling it for. In this case, for this project, I needed what Spencer offered, which would complement how I tell stories. And as for Helen, all of the arrangements in the show are original and completely in the spirit of how they were written, but how they are told through movement has been made with us. I believe we are enhancing the story as honestly as possible. There are all kinds of things we are doing to create various rhythmic elements, but it is done through the action.”

“We all have a lot to bring to the table,” Liff said. “It’s been fun allowing all of our ideas to come into our melting pot. I’ve given a lot of thought to offering a very entertaining evening that doesn’t become 15 numbers that look the same. It’s about taking all the pieces, the tables, the chairs, and getting the most use out of everything on stage to create and be imaginative as I’ve ever had to be to spark the imagination of the audience.”

“And thanks to Spencer’s choreography,” Moore added, “there’s not a single surface that’s untouched.”

It’s a Fine Life

Phoenix, Ariz., native Spencer Liff, 27, continues to craft a career distinguishing him as one of the most remarkable dancers/choreographers of his generation.

A recent Emmy nominee for creating three marvelous routines on last year’s season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” Liff has been a memorable presence on stage and screen since 1993 when he portrayed a chipper newsboy in the TV adaptation of “Gypsy” starring Bette Midler. At age 10, he made his Broadway debut in “Big,” choreographed by Tony winner Susan Stroman (“The Producers”). Within the past decade he was guided by Emmy and Tony winner Rob Ashford (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) in the Broadway ensembles of “The Wedding Singer” and “Cry-Baby,” winning the 2008 Fred Astaire Award as Broadway’s Best Male Dancer for the latter. He also served as assistant choreographer and dance captain of “Cry-Baby” and appeared in and served as dance captain of the Broadway revival of “Equus” starring Daniel Radcliffe. In addition to choreographing for such TV shows as “Dancing with the Stars” and “How I Met Your Mother” and appearing on “Smash,” the Tony Awards (five times) and the Kennedy Center Honors (four times), he can also be seen in the movie musicals “Across the Universe,” “Hairspray” and “Footloose.”

“I was thrilled when we confirmed Spencer as choreographer for ‘Oliver!,’” Moore said. “I was already a huge fan of his work on ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ It was clear that Spencer knew how to tell a story with his dance. He is undoubtedly a ‘star on the ascent’ in the world of theater and dance, and we are fortunate to have him now.”

“When you work in television, the time is short and you’re only putting together a (routine) lasting a couple of minutes so it’s really fun to step into a show in which you have to deliver two hours of one voice and one piece,” Liff said. “And I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with a lot of choreographers. The most important thing I’ve learned from them is that you can never do a step without a reason. A step has to have a purpose. Even when I put in dance breaks, if it doesn’t tell the audience something about the characters, it doesn’t need to be there. And as a choreographer, it’s great to continue to discover what the main point is of a particular dance, which brings everything back to the most important issue, which is the storytelling.”

A longtime fan of Bob Fosse, Cyd Charisse and the beloved MGM musicals of yesteryear, Liff says he was particularly inspired by dance on film, especially Jerome Robbins’ iconic sequences for “West Side Story,” which opened his eyes to the possibilities in pedestrian movement.

“I loved seeing men dance like men,” he said. “That’s why I’m excited about ‘Oliver!’ I’m choreographing for burly, drunken Victorian men that wouldn’t know how to dance. It’s been fun finding believable movement that looks like dance but doesn’t look like the men are in a ballet class.”

It’s Clear We’re Going to Get Along

Dayton audiences will be treated to an assortment of new and familiar artists on the Loft Theatre stage.

The cast consists of Blaise Bouschard (La Comedia Dinner Theatre’s “Seussical” and “Titanic”) in the titular role, Jonah Sorscher (“The King and I,” “High School Musical 2 Jr.”) as the titular understudy, Dublin, Ireland, native Gary Troy (New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre’s “The Irish and How They Got That Way”) as Fagin and others, University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music alumna Sara Sheperd (“Cry-Baby,” “Legally Blonde”) as Nancy and others, University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music alum Joseph Medeiros (who appeared in “Big” with Liff in addition to the Broadway casts of “Wicked,” “West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”) as the Artful Dodger and others, University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music alum Nicholas Belton (“Hair,” “My Life with Albertine,” “Wicked”) as Bill Sykes and others, Human Race resident artist Scott Stoney (“Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” “The Drowsy Chaperone”) as Mr. Bumble and others, Adam Lendermon (“Cats,” “West Side Story”) as Mr. Sowerberry and others, Dayton native Chris Shea (founding artistic director of Free Shakespeare!) as Mr. Brownlow and others, Wright State University senior musical theater major Ian Devine (the phenomenal Link Larkin of “Hairspray”) as Noah Claypole and others, and the aforementioned Gregory (“Grease,” “Oklahoma!”) as Bet and others.

The creative team includes scenic designer David A. Centers, costumer Molly Walz, lighting designer John Rensel and sound designer Brian Retterer.

“We needed incredibly multi-talented people,” Liff said. “We cast talent from here and talent from New York. We were really specific in what we needed. When we found it, we put it all in our puzzle. Everyone’s a little nutty and crazy, which is what we need for this show. We picked really great people.”

“This has truly been a collaborative process, which is so freeing and exciting for an actor,” Sheperd said. “I think Alan’s concept is incredible, and it has been so awesome figuring out the piece with him and Spencer in the room. Spencer’s choreography has helped the concept come to life. He has found a way to create movement that can be believable to the (era).”

Reviewing the Situation

At a recent rehearsal, the close-knit cast’s cohesiveness and compatibility was infectious as the concept and choreography intertwined.

With Souza and Liff attentively monitoring the action, ensemble numbers “Oom-Pah-Pah” (featuring Sheperd among a vigorous display of kicks, leaps and twirls) and “Who Will Buy?” (a playful, bustling routine with actors sliding on the floor and gliding across the stage) particularly showcased the strong uniformity that has occurred since rehearsals began four weeks ago. Sheperd, whose soaring rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me” beckons to be a signature moment, credits teamwork as a fundamental component that has made the journey completely rewarding.

“Working on a piece like this most definitely brings a cast together,” she said. “It’s a small cast to begin with, which helps, but I think when you have the opportunity to create something new together, it brings a sense of camaraderie to the cast and to the show. It is an experience I am so grateful to be a part of. Working on this particular version is so interesting. Although the story and songs are all still there it feels like we’re creating a brand new piece of theater because in reality it is.”

“There is expert storytelling going on, and to watch this show evolve has been fascinating,” Moore said. “We have a really good group of artists. The collective process has been smart. I think it’s going to be a very moving, unique experience.”

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