Off Square Theatre students find joy in hardship performing ‘Oliver!’

The annual youth musical breathes new life into Lionel Bart's classic play about orphan Oliver Twist.
(Left to right) Off Square Theatre students Rowan Logan, Xander Vanier and Student Director Liz Echt chatted with us and performed a song live in the KHOL studios in advance of their performance in "Oliver!" at The Center for the Arts on Feb. 23 and 24. (Jack Catlin/KHOL)

by | Feb 22, 2024 | Culture, Performing Arts

Each year Off Square Theatre gives local students the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of theatrical production in a “student-produced, professionally-managed” format. 

This year, the organization is presenting a youth musical rendition of Lionel Bart’s classic play, “Oliver!,” on Feb. 23rd and Feb. 24th at the Center for the Arts. 

Based on Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” the Tony and Olivier Award-winning show is one of the few musicals to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and is considered a theatrical masterpiece around the world.

That’s according to Off Square Theatre’s Education Director and Development Manager Sadie Frank.

“‘Oliver Twist’ was partly a political work against the British Poor Laws, which, among many other things, enacted this workhouse system where impoverished kids were sent to workhouses to work hard and were given a tiny bit of food in return,” Frank said. “And that’s the setting where our story begins.”

“Oliver Twist” was first published in 1838. At the time, London had just become the largest city in the world, and it would be the largest city in the world for the next 100 years. London was experiencing rapid industrialization and wealth inequality. It was a tough time for everybody, especially children of lesser means. 

One song, “That’s Your Funeral,” is from the point of view of Mr. & Mrs. Sowerberry as they taunt Oliver after “purchasing” him from the local parish workhouse. Student Director Liz Echt, Rowan Logan and Xander Vanier performed the song live on KHOL.

The youth musical is an essential part of Off Square Theatre’s annual calendar, offering young artists an opportunity to create, learn and perform on The Center’s main stage and gain experience on the technical side of theater through youth crew positions. “Oliver!” features over 50 students in grades three through 12 as part of the cast and crew.

“The crew members are learning all the same skills that our actors do, which is from our experience all about problem-solving and teamwork. And of course, they’re having a ton of fun along the way,” Frank said.

Echt, the student director, said she loves seeing the shows come together.

“I mean, from the small Black Box Theater that we started in, to The Center Stage where now everything’s kind of cohesive. It’s amazing to watch,” she said.

Echt, Logan and Vanier all expressed their hope that the community would come out to the shows and experience the sense of reward that the actors and crew feel when performing for the audience after so many hours of preparation and rehearsal. Most of all, they said, they want everyone in attendance to be filled with the joy they get out of performing such an incredible play. 

“It’s kind of a piece of resilience, you know? This poor orphan boy is getting thrown around and beaten down and, you know, it turns out to be a happy ending. [It’s relatable] to anyone going through any kind of tough time and just a nice thing to enjoy,” Echt said.

Oliver! will run Friday, Feb. 23 at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 24 at 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. at the Center for the Arts theater.  More information and tickets at jhcenterforthearts.org.

Listen above for KHOL’s full conversation with and performances by Off Square Theatre’s youth musical cast.

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About Jack Catlin

Jack is KHOL's music director. He says all music is in some way connected no matter the style and his mission is to provide listeners with a unique and memorable experience each time they tune in to KHOL or see him DJ live.

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