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College, Buchanan Center to stage Oliver! at Wells Theater

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College and the Buchanan Center for the Arts are once again joining forces to bring live theatre to the area, and this time they will bring to life one of the classic stage musicals.

Directed and choreographed by Monmouth theatre professor Vanessa Campagna, Oliver! will conclude the College’s theatre season April 11-14 in Wells Theater. Included is an extra matinee performance at 2 p.m. April 13.

The musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist tells the story of a malnourished orphan boy who escapes the drudgery of life at a workhouse and then as an undertaker’s apprentice by fleeing to London. There, Oliver finds acceptance among a gang of boys who pick pockets, and then later comes under the care of kindly Mr. Brownlow, who saves him from London’s slums. Throughout the story, Oliver yearns to discover the true meaning of family.

With the music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart, Oliver! has been among the more beloved stage musicals since it premiered on the London stage in 1960.

Campagna said that the theme of Oliver’s yearning for “home” is one of the reasons the show has been a popular choice to produce for more than a half-century.

“The child protagonist, who is perpetually searching for home and for community, is very endearing,” she said. “The desire for a sense of belonging makes it an absolutely human story. That’s where I really found my entrance point (as a director). ... The themes of community and home are salient in the text, but I really wanted to push them in my staging of the work on this residential campus and in the context of a co-production with the local community.”

Campagna said she has made some “judicious” edits to shorten the musical’s typical three-hour run. The run time will be two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. “The true narrative is still there. ... We’ve made it digestible while still preserving that story.”

“A 2009 London revival helped make the music even more robust, and the orchestration has also been developed in really exciting ways,” she said.

Although she was familiar with the musical before taking on the Monmouth-BCA production, this is the first time Campagna has been involved with Oliver! professionally. One of the characters that she has developed a new appreciation for is Fagin, the older man who leads the gang of pickpocket boys.

“Fagin is absolutely comedic relief,” she said. “You could laugh at him and leave it at that. But he’s this character who faces a tremendous ethical dilemma. He says, ‘I need to survive amidst these really dire economic circumstances,’ so he makes choices that probably most of us wouldn’t agree with – he exploits children and he’s a thief. But at the end of the play, he actually discovers that there’s a better way for him. Exploring the depth of that character has been really rewarding.”

Beneath the theme of searching for home and acceptance are other relevant current issues, such as food insecurity, homelessness, domestic violence and abandonment.

“We’ve found some really nice moments in the rehearsal process to pause and identify these sociopolitical issues that in the 21st century we absolutely should be speaking about,” said Campagna.

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Monmouth College will present “Oliver!” at 7:30 p.m. April 11-13 and at 2 p.m. April 13-14 at Wells Theater. Tickets can be purchased online at Tickets are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, and $6 for students and faculty with a Monmouth College ID.