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If you go
What: “Oliver!”
Where: Arts United Center, 303 E. Main St.
When: Today through Feb. 17
Admission: Tickets are $16, $5 for IPFW students with valid ID, $10 for people 18 and younger. To buy tickets, go to tickets.artstix.org, call 422-4226 or buy them at Arts United Center.
Courtesy photo by Ryan Hake
Robert Phillips plays Fagin and Sam Smiley is one of two Olivers in the cast of “Oliver!” at Arts United Center.

Staging a grand production

Youtheatre, IPFW team up for ‘Oliver!’ with 50-person cast

When John O’Connell started as the chair of IPFW’s theater department in 2007, he mentioned in passing to Fort Wayne Youtheatre executive director Leslie Hormann that he would like to collaborate with her group.

Six years later, and for what may be the first time, the two local theater groups have joined forces for a production of “Oliver!” that opens at Arts United Center tonight.

“(‘Oliver!’) always requires a really massive undertaking,” says O’Connell, the play’s director. “The current cast is 50 people.”

More than half of that group is children from the Youtheatre. Four are community members, including professional actors on IPFW’s staff, two are high school students, and the rest are college students from IPFW’s theater program.

The collaboration provides a new experience for IPFW students and Youtheatre children. Because the performance is in Arts United Center, college theater students packed up the entire production and loaded it on three trucks last week. All day Saturday, the cast and crew constructed the set, which was much too large to fit on IPFW’s stage.

“My students are kind of getting the experience to see what it would be like to be on a bus and truck tour,” O’Connell says. “We have just over 26 hours to put the entire set up, get the lights working, do a first run with the orchestra” and more.

The Youtheatre students, meanwhile, are seeing what it’s like to work on such a grand-scale production. Youtheatre does children’s theater, says Hormann, “Oliver!” assistant director, which means the shows are literature-based – “Cinderella,” say, or “Charlotte’s Web.”

The theater doesn’t have the budget to afford royalties for something that has been on Broadway, and it wouldn’t be able to afford production costs that go along with such a large-scale play or musical.

The collaboration with IPFW means the two theaters split the costs, Hormann says, and it also means her kids are working on a 2 1/2 -hour Broadway musical.

This means the Youtheatre actors and actresses are working slightly later nights than they may be used to. O’Connell tells a story about asking one child whether he would be able to continue rehearsing until 8:30 p.m. one evening.

“Yeah, I can, but I usually go to bed at 8.30,” O’Connell says, quoting the child. “All these parents have been really committed to letting their kids stay till the later time.”

And the kids have loved working with the older students, Hormann says.

“They all just are so enamored with the older kids,” she says. “They want to hang out with them. They see them as mentors. The older kids have kind of taken the younger kids under their wings.”

O’Connell sees this displayed in the children’s work ethic. In scenes where IPFW students are rehearsing and the Youtheatre kids are off stage, the children could be entertaining themselves with their electronics and not paying attention.

But that’s not what happens.

“I watch these 11-year-olds stand over on the side of the stage,” he says. “They could be pulling out their video games, but they don’t. They sit over there and … they’re watching the rehearsal process and are intrigued and interested in it. …

“These kids are 11 years old, and they’ve learned five or six full dances with our college kids. I’m astounded by their commitment to the work and their rehearsal process.”

But there are certain things O’Connell has to make sure to guard against, issues that wouldn’t arise if he were working solely with his students.

He cast, for example, two Olivers. That doesn’t mean there’s one main Oliver and one understudy – there are two children who will switch back and forth for the performances.

It’s because it’s flu season.

“I can tell you, if a mother had a kid with a 102 temperature, she’d (not) give a hoot about my production of ‘Oliver!’ downtown,” he says. “It’s a safety measure. Oliver’s in the whole show.”

jyouhana@jg.net

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