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Spokane Valley Summer Theatre takes stage with ‘Oliver!’

July 21, 2016

Although it’s still in its first month, Spokane Valley Summer Theatre is already proving its versatility. Following a successful run of the rock ‘n’ roll revue “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” the theater’s maiden season continues next week with the beloved Dickensian musical “Oliver!”

The show, like “Buddy” before it, will have SVST’s executive artistic director Yvonne A.K. Johnson at its helm. Johnson, a former artistic director at Spokane Civic Theatre, says her new theatrical undertaking is already finding an audience, and she considers this ongoing season to be something of a homecoming.

“The welcoming has honestly been tremendous,” Johnson said. “Every day since opening ‘Buddy,’ ticket sales have continued to improve and more and more patrons came. … We feel very fortunate to be in this incredible space, and to already have such an outpouring of support. It’s great to be back.”

“Oliver!” is, of course, the renowned musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ sophomore novel “Oliver Twist,” which premiered to great acclaim in London in 1960. It’s been revived and restaged countless times, and it was adapted into a 1968 film that won the Oscar for best picture.

“It’s one of the chestnuts of musical theater,” Johnson said. “The songs in this are so memorable. It has one of the most beautiful scores ever written. You’ve got all these songs – ‘Consider Yourself,’ ‘Be Back Soon,’ ‘It’s a Fine Life,’ ‘Where Is Love?’ Everybody usually says, ‘Oh, I know that song, and I know that song.’ I think people look forward to hearing them.”

Those songs are the work of writer Lionel Bart, whose success as a pop tunesmith is apparent in many of the show’s most memorable selections. Perhaps its most famous song is the ballad, “As Long As He Needs Me,” which has been recorded dozens of times, most successfully by Shirley Bassey.

The plot of “Oliver!” is, of course, just as memorable as its songs. It follows the precocious orphan Oliver Twist (played in the SVST production by Hudson Drake), who escapes from a workhouse to join the gang of career criminal Fagin (Joshua VanderPlaats). The darker underbelly of the story involves poor Nancy (Caryssa Murphy), whose relationship with the brutish, violent Bill Sikes (Paul Villabrille) leads to tragedy.

“As much as you’re dealing with themes of poverty and betrayal and abuse, you also have the flip side,” Johnson said. “I think you’ll see a lot of that in the production. … I’m really bringing out the comedy. All the comedic moments are really heightened. You’ll see the fun; you’ll see the love and the friendships. And you’ll see that hope always prevails in the end.”

“Oliver!” is an ambitious production, featuring elaborate sets and costumes, a 10-piece orchestra and a cast of 44, which includes 18 children as orphans and pickpockets. But for all the technical wizardry on display – Johnson is quick to dole out credit to her creative team, including set designer Michael J. Muzatko and music director David Brewster – the success of any production of “Oliver!” largely depends on the actor who takes on the title role.

“I was looking for a boy that I felt was genuine, authentic,” Johnson said. “You have to be able to keep it real. And of course, there’s a certain amount of singing and dancing ability (required).”

Johnson cast 10-year-old Drake, who’s making his stage debut in “Oliver!” She recalls his audition, during which he sang two songs at the piano, and immediately recognized he was a natural performer.

“He’s so intuitive as an actor,” Johnson said. “He’s such a beautiful soul, and you have to have that in shows like this. There needs to be a naivete and a vulnerability to Oliver, so that your heart goes out to him because of what he’s gone through. He has a vulnerability, but he also has a strength that comes through. And you either have that or you don’t. His ‘Where Is Love?’ is just going to melt peoples’ hearts.”