In bringing the musical “Oliver!” to the stage, students at Floyd Dryden Middle School have been blurring the line between seriousness and fun, education and entertainment.
The play involves lots of singing and dancing, but also touches on themes of poverty and abuse. It’s part of the magic of good storytelling that these elements can successfully coexist — and it demonstrates the power of art to connect kids to real-life social issues and the lessons of history, while having a good time doing it.
Director Dawn Kolden, whose experiences with kids theater includes plays at Thunder Mountain High School and Perseverance Theatre’s Young Company, said her work with students always includes a study of the historical background of a play, as well as opportunities for teachers to tie in a play’s themes in their classrooms before they bring students to a production. With this play, Kolden decided to bring in another area of expertise: social relationships, particularly the dynamics of personal power. Kolden, the educational director at AWARE, teaches healthy relationships classes to high school and middle school kids, and personal body safety to younger students, among other topics. The story of “Oliver!” contains not only child abuse but domestic violence, providing an opportunity for kids to discuss these difficult topics with specific (but fictional) reference points.
“We’re talking about poverty and abuse, and how it was illegal to hit your animals in public before your kids,” Kolden said. “These are real issues, these are real kids that were actually on the street, so I’m teaching them all that as I go along. And I have curriculum links for the teachers so they can teach the historical background in their classes.”
The students were encouraged to find both negative and positive examples of personal power while working on the script.
“One of the examples that I teach in kindergarten through high school is personal power, how personal power is actually personal strength and how we can use that,” Kolden said. “(For example) Nancy stands up and uses her personal power to make a choice to save Oliver, she makes the decision to stand up for him.”
Set in the 1800s, the musical is based on the famous novel “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens, and features music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Kolden’s team members in organizing the production are Missouri Smyth, musical director, and Mike Bucy, band teacher at FDMS. Student musicians, led by Smyth in the pit, provide the accompanying score. Smyth said, when she was hired at FDMS, she made it a priority to get the students involved in musicals, something that had not been done there for many years. Their first one she organized was “Fiddler on the Roof,” in 2011, followed by “Aladdin,” both directed by Barbara Jo Maier, with Smyth and Bucy on music. “Oliver” is Kolden’s first project with the school.
Smyth said at the beginning she was a little worried about “Oliver!” being too serious.
“We were worried at first that the musical was going to be dark, because when you hear the story of “Oliver” it is somewhat of a dark story,” Smyth said. ”...but it turned out really well.”
“The kids play it with this hope, a hope and an understanding that this happens, but the important part is the hope, that we can take what happens and make it hopeful. And that’s what they really focus on and what I love about it.”
The atmosphere following the first public presentation of the play Thursday morning for a packed house of middle school students was anything but dark. Classmates shouted out encouragement such as “That was awesome!” to the cast as they filed out of the auditorium, and cast members themselves wore broad smiles. A few minutes later, as they sat in a circle before their second run-through of the day, they exchanged “shout outs” with fellow actors about what they liked about their first show. Many hands went up, as the kids praised each other by name. The last one to go, a sixth-grader, voiced his general enthusiasm.
“That was our first play. and we were boss!”
Oliver runs this weekend only at the Thunder Mountain High School auditorium. It plays at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, and at 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23. Tickets are $10 each or $25 for families of four. The FDMS production is 90 minutes long.
• Contact Arts & Culture Editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.