Many, many years ago, I played the title role in my high school’s production of “Oliver.”
I was a freshman. Though I suspect that a major reason I got the part was that my voice hadn’t yet changed — I was a 4-year-old kindergartener, thanks to my October birthday, which made me younger than many of my classmates — I embraced my sudden starring role in the spring musical with gusto.
Ardeth DeVries, the woman who cast me, was one of my favorite teachers at Felton’s San Lorenzo Valley High School. She was a consummate director and revered (and a little feared) theater perfectionist, and when she told me not to cut my hair from November onward, I didn’t dare cross her. My already cow-licky, unruly sewer-blond locks in the coming months reached near shoulder-length, making me look like 1) a totally tubular surfer haunting the beaches of nearby Santa Cruz; 2) a lead singer about a decade too early for a role in a ’90s boy band; or 3) a 19th century London waif.
It turns out my Oliver role was the pinnacle of my mostly unremarkable theatrical career. I followed it up in high school with turns as one of the “Marian the Librarian” dancers in “The Music Man,” Yeoman Herbert Quale in “South Pacific” and the Second Sharecropper in “Finian’s Rainbow.” I wasn’t even the First Sharecropper — my friend Todd nabbed that role. (See the lack of career progression?) After that, it was the critic’s life for me.
But I’ve always loved the role of poor little Oliver. When I watched the current Good Company Players production of “Oliver” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, it brought back a lot of memories. And it got me to thinking: Would I still have what it takes to play Oliver?
So, with the gracious cooperation of 13-year-old Marty Margolin, who plays Oliver in the GCP production, along with some of his castmates, I embarked on a quixotic (and, yes, potentially humiliating) quest: an “Orphan-Off” between Marty and me.
Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora was on hand to witness (and film) the outing, which involved a custom orphan costume, a few props, a group of wonderful volunteer cast members, my much-less-abundant hair, and director Dan Pessano himself. Plus I brought to the table in all its glory my voice, which I’m happy to report has most definitely changed, although that fact made the solo “Where Is Love,” which is supposed to be sung in a boy’s register, somewhat problematic.
You can watch the play-by-play action of the informal “contest” in Zamora’s video at www.fresnobee.com/entertainment. You’ll have to watch the video to absorb the true impact of my belting out a song I haven’t performed in 36 years. But here’s a recap:
Round 1. “Please, Sir, I Want Some More.” Marty goes first. He rises from the orphans’ table at the workhouse, marches up to Mr. Bumble (Daniel Sutherland) and boldly asks for more. “Wha-a-a-t?” Bumble shrieks, to which Oliver — never really one to take a hint — asks again. Much consternation ensues, with expressions of outrage and wonder from the workhouse helper (Jason Danner) to the orphans (Ben Spain, Abby Spain, Anna Smith and Joy Smith).
Now it’s my turn. I wonder: How can I make this character my own? Holding my bowl, I stare straight at Mr. Bumble, projecting confidence and a Marxist-infused revolt-of-the-masses mindset as a humble but determined member of the proletariat hoping to fling off the shackles of capitalism. “Please, sir, I want some more,” I say.
I get the same “Wha-a-a-t?,” but I’m convinced that Bumble is momentarily rattled, glimpsing in me as he does a society in which middling bureaucrats such as him are swept away in a realignment of societal priorities. I ask again with a hint of righteous trepidation, and while the howl of disbelief in response is the same as with Marty, I’m convinced that I and my fellow actors have achieved a greater depth of theatrical truth on stage.
Oh, who am I kidding?
I’m stilted and awkward. And I’m wondering if my choice not to shave my salt-and-pepper beard could influence the outcome. Perhaps I didn’t take enough time to get into character.
Round 2. Picking a pocket. Juan Danner, who plays Fagin, sings “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” as Marty darts around him with finesse. Sooner than I can say “Keep your Chase 1-800 number handy to report a stolen card,” he has snagged a handkerchief from Fagin, perfectly in sync with the music.
I take the stage. As Fagin waltzes around, I try to make it look as if I’m reaching for his handkerchief without actually grabbing it yet so I can match up with the music, too. But I fumble self-consciously, and I’m slightly annoyed, vowing under my breath to turn this old man in to the British version of Child Protective Services. The first time we do the scene I grab the handkerchief too soon, leaving several measures before Fagin’s big lyrical finish. I have to do it again. Not pretty.
Round 3. “Where Is Love?” Still, I have my trump card. I’ve been practicing my falsetto in my car on the drive over to the theater, and I’m sounding rather convincingly eunuch-like today.
Marty sits down and offers a charming, sweet rendition of the song.
My turn. Suddenly my voice seems to lose its purity and freshman-year sweetness, sounding rather like a gravel spreader on a trouble-prone stretch of the Alaska Highway. I ask for another take. I figure that for my characterization to stand out, I need to make Oliver more pensive. Not only should he be longing to find his mother, he needs to ache for something more — a proper sewer system in London, perhaps, or free dry cleaning for all residents during summer months.
I sing, and I try to infuse my performance with a sense of a slightly older and wiser Oliver. I look over at my fellow castmates. I’m not sure, but I think I just saw Mr. Bumble throw up a little in his mouth.
The verdict. Dan Pessano, the “Oliver” director, gathers the small cast together. He’s going to make this democratic. (As in small “d.” No Supreme Court rulings on this one.) He asks for the vote of the crowd. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Will there be a new Oliver for the remainder of the run?
Even the smallest of the orphans votes me off the island.
I congratulate Marty, who graciously suggests I consider auditioning to be his understudy. (Or, more accurately, the understudy to his understudy.) We shake on it.
So it is back to the keyboard for me. I feel more comfortable in front of it than an audience, anyway. But just think: For an hour, I was Oliver again. I can’t ask for more than that.
- Through July 19
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- Tickets: $30-$50
- www.gcplayers.com, (559) 266-9494