Crafty classic ‘Oliver!’ hits Venture boards Nov. 18

It doesn’t matter how many talented adult and teen actors surround the title character in a production of “Oliver!”, because if the kid can’t nail the high notes and sing with his heart, it won’t work.

Venture Theatre picked a winner in young Zac Anderson for its production, which opens Nov. 18 and runs through Dec. 18. Anderson’s round cheeks, eager eyes and clear voice almost bright enough to bring Oliver’s mother back from the grave all work in his favor.

Charles Dickens’ familiar tale about an orphan boy, who is befriended by thieves and eventually rescued, has been performed on stage since 1960 and adapted for film in the late 1960s. Lionel Bart’s original score won a Tony Award and the 1968 film won six Academy Awards. The script is solid, the characters are memorable and the music is catchy. Consider how familiar the melodies have become for “Consider Yourself” and “I’d Do Anything.”

The quality of the production relies on the local cast and the staging of the musical, which has become a holiday tradition because of Dickens’ recurring theme of hope.

It’s been popular on local stages over the years. Billings Studio Theatre produced the show twice in the past two decades. In 1989, Gary Treglown was still settling into Billings after moving here in 1987. He wanted to get involved in the local theater scene and auditioned to play Fagin in “Oliver!”

“That was a really memorable show with Joseph Mace, who is now a professional opera singer, playing Oliver and Trevor Krieger as the Artful Dodger,” Treglown said.

Treglown liked the experience so much that he again auditioned successfully for the role of Fagin this fall, joining some cast mates from Venture’s production of “Willie Wonka,” including Nan Edmonds, who plays the Widow Corney. Fagin, a conniving criminal who befriends homeless boys and teaches them a trade, picking pockets, has a couple of big numbers in the show, including his theme song, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.”

Treglown pointed out that “Oliver!” depicts a time in history where despair and hardship was a way of life, particularly if you were an orphan.

“The country is going through this struggle with the economy, but it’s nothing compared to the times that Dickens wrote about,” Treglown said. “But he did offer hope. Even Fagin at the end says something like ‘I’ll turn a leaf over and who knows what I’ll find’ and then Dodger pops up.”

Chris Decker plays the Artful Dodger and Rebekah Kellison plays Nancy. Paul Jangula is the dark Bill Sykes, Nancy’s boyfriend. Patrick Wilson directs, Donna Chorika-Ayers is musical director and Kristi Martin choreographs.

Wilson was a force last week directing the 32-person cast, bouncing onto the stage to show a youngster how to put more energy into a scene and then coaxing more volume from Anderson. Actors say they enjoy working with Wilson because of his passion.

“Just look at him,” Treglown said. “You can’t say no to Patrick.”

To give the show a fresh look with the set, Venture is bringing in Helena native Amber Felker to design it.

“Sometimes in Billings, you get trapped into doing things the same way. Amber is coming in to help show us how to up our game,” said Venture marketing director Lynn Al.