Petty thievery, philandering workhouse wardens and meager dinner portions aside, the musical “Oliver!” is about yearning for a home and sense of belonging.
That’s a sentiment that resonates in community theater, especially with the Kenai Performers’ annual musical. The production often involves upward of 100 people, from kids to adults, experienced actors to first-timers, orchestra musicians and the army of volunteers that sews costumes, does makeup, builds sets, creates props, sells tickets and keeps everything running smoothly. All come together, from different backgrounds and stages in life, to donate their time for a few months in the winter for the shared purpose of putting on a show.
“It’s been wonderful to be part of something where there’s anything from little teeny children to teenagers to older adults,” said Chris Pepper, who plays the villain, Bill Sykes. “You know everyone, you’re all smiling and having a good time and working toward something big and having to collaborate and work together and everyone having to get along through stress and everything. It’s an amazing experience. At the end it’s one whole big family, and everyone knows your name and is smiling. You have no choice, really.”
Pepper is one of the newbies, in some respects. He’s been a performing musician in the community for the past six or seven years, but he hasn’t done much theater since elementary school.
“Through my youth and growing up I always put it off, there were always other things to do and reasons why I couldn’t do it. Then I just said, ‘Hey, the theater is right there, right down the street. I’m going to audition for it.’ And I’m very glad I did,” he said.
He may be relatively new to the stage, but he’s used to performing.
“I’ve always been just an outgoing person wanting to entertain, and this kind of filtered it into an environment where it was acceptable, a controlled environment to kind of do what I always do without being told to be quiet,” Pepper said. “Now it’s, ‘You need to be louder.’”
The show originally comes from the book “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens. It follows the winding path of young Oliver, from a workhouse for orphans where he is punished for asking for another portion of gruel by being sold off as an apprentice to the local undertaker. He escapes after being bullied by another apprentice, and unwittingly falls in with a band of thieves led by Mr. Fagin, who recruits boys to pick pockets for him.
Oliver is caught in his first criminal outing, although the victim, Mr. Brownlow, takes pity and is willing to let Oliver stay with him. But Fagin, the Sykes and Nancy, who is in love with Sykes, plot to steal Oliver back from his new, happy home.
Oliver is played by newcomer Logan Boyle. Garrett Hermansen plays the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s young associate. Kenai Performers veterans Marc Berezin and Christin Leckwee play Fagin and Nancy. Mr. Bumble and the Widow Corney, in charge of the workhouse, are played by Bob Bird and Cheri Johnson. The musical is written by Lionel Bart and directed by Laura Forbes.
There’s nothing redeemable in Sykes’ character — he’s as nasty and cruel as they come. Nevertheless, Pepper said it’s been good seeing how bad he can be.
“It’s very exhilarating. I go on stage and a button’s pushed and then I’m like pure evil, and every ounce of my body is loud and evil and spitting. It’s an adrenaline rush but it’s hard to turn the button off,” he said. “It’s hard to play him without totally 100 percent giving in to the role, ’cause if I go less than 100 percent I crack up laughing, so I’ve got to go, ‘OK, I’m in for it. Go.’”
Fagin has a few glimmers of having a conscience, and at least pretends to be a decent person, but that’s all just an act — one that Berezin has enjoyed.
“I enjoy on rare occasion playing somebody who is rather unpleasant, and you could certainly say that about Fagin. It’s fun playing someone so creepy,” he said.
As Fagin, Berezin gets to perform some of the more humorous songs of the show.
“It’s where Fagin really exposes who he is, especially ‘Pick a Pocket.’ Thievery is his way of life. In ‘Reviewing the Situation,’ it may be the only moment in the whole show where Fagin shows a few moments of conscience. Mostly he’s a man who gets small boys to steal money for him,” Berezin said.
Berezin was Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the title character in “The Wiz” in past Kenai Performers musicals.
“I love it. It’s as much the process as it is the product,” he said. “I enjoy getting together with a group of people all sharing some common goal and I like having the opportunity to hang around with some really wonderful kids, and rehearsal is every bit as fun as the actual performance for an audience. Not that it’s always fun — we know it ain’t.”
Berezin said he’s wanted the Kenai Performers to put on “Oliver!” for years.
“The whole thing is I love this show. I’ve been trying to get Laura to direct this for a long time. It’s a darker show than what we usually do. There is some humor in it and Oliver finds the love he’s searching for. The people who deserve to have things end well for them do, and people who deserve to end badly do,” he said.
“I have to say it was more the music for me than the show itself. And I have to say that I think Fagin is a wonderful part. I’ve wanted to do this play for selfish reasons. I gave pretty good warning to anybody else auditioning for the show that I wanted to be Fagin, and I would find out where they live.”
Forbes said the show has been challenging and joyful to put together.
“I think it’s a well-written musical. It trucks right through,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed watching the actors, many of whom are new to this for the first time, including our Oliver, really develop and support each other in that development.”
Forbes is certainly not new to Kenai Performers. When her parents moved to Kenai, “Oliver!” was the first show they were involved in, in the group that eventually became the Kenai Performers. Her dad, Dave Forbes, played the doctor, and mom, Lorrene Forbes, sewed costumes. Once Laura came along, she was involved, too.
“I was handing out programs at the door as soon as you could see me and I was hanging out in the green room where everybody else’s parents became your parents,” she said.
She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Alaska Anchorage and worked in several theaters in Chicago before moving back to the central peninsula about two years ago.
In that sense, “Oliver!” has been a fitting show on many levels — for the volunteers looking to participate in a community event, for Forbes getting back to her roots, and for the Kenai Performers organization itself, which is working toward establishing a permanent home.
“Oliver’s song, ‘Where is Love?’ Everybody in the play is looking for some sort of home and family and love, and I think that’s particularly pertinent to what we’re trying to do with Kenai Performers and finding a permanent home, and for me personally, as well, coming home,” she said.
“Oliver!” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors, available at Charlotte’s and Already Read Books in Kenai, Sweeney’s and River City Books in Soldotna, and at the door.