BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Watch a few minutes of rehearsals for the new production of “Oliver!” taking the stage at the Fairfield Theatre Company later this month and you’ll know you’re in for a very different take on the venerable Dickens tale.
First off, Oliver, usually played by an adorable blonde feigning a British accent, is embodied here by equally adorable Ajibola Hakeem “Keeme” Tajudeen of Bridgeport, whose singing voice hints at his training with a church choir.
The Artful Dodger, that scruffy-but-savvy boy pickpocket, is played by a teenage girl, Jen Beveridge of Watertown.
“It’s very different — multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-gendered,” said Kristin Huffman, producing artistic director of New Paradigm Theatre Company. “And we’re going to connect up to what this musical is directly about — hunger, homelessness, poverty. Hunger isn’t just in Dickens time.
“People will go away saying not just, ‘What did I see?’ They’ll say, ‘What was I a part of?’”
While the musical features Broadway, film and TV professionals, it also includes 23 children from both urban and suburban communities across Fairfield County and beyond. Some are involved in Turnaround Arts and Project Youth, two programs for underserved youth.
The company is also working with the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, shining the spotlight on work it does through a soup kitchen, food pantry and other initiatives audience members can support financially or by volunteering, Huffman said.
“We’re going to have sign-up sheets right there,” she said, noting the cast will be volunteering as part of their experience.
Each of the three performances will be preceded by an hourlong “Prologue Bazaar,” a showcase of local artists, singers and street performers with tip jars that will support the Council’s work. Part of the admission fee is a nonperishable food item.
City Lights Gallery of Bridgeport will add graffiti to the sets to give them a thoroughly modern feel.
Emmy-nominated director Scott Bryce, an actor and theater teacher from Weston, said he has wanted to modernize “Oliver!” for decades.
“I wanted to look at it through a cross-cultural eye,” he said. “This story is one about love. None of these kids should be struggling. They should all have a shot.”
Grammy and Tony winner Paul Bogaev is the show’s music director and arranger. Two days into rehearsals he couldn’t say enough good things about his 11-year-old lead.
“I think he’s a star,” he said. “He’s wonderful.”
As for Keeme, he said he studied other productions of “Oliver!” to get a feel for both the lead role and The Dodger because he was considered for both parts. He’s confident that putting in the hard work at rehearsals will yield a memorable performance.
“I know it’s going to go well,” he said with a smile.
“Oliver!” hits the boards on Aug. 20 at 2 and 7 p.m. and again at 3 p.m. Aug. 21 at Fairfield Theatre Company’s The Warehouse, 70 Sanford St., Fairfield. For tickets and more information, visit www.nptheatre.org.
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