With an ensemble cast of 65 students of all ages, ranging from elementary school to seniors in high school, the production might be the Drama Program's most ambitious undertaking ever.
Set in Victorian England, the story opens with Oliver Twist living in a workhouse where he and his fellow orphans are treated with disdain and neglect. After the simple request for a little more food, his unfriendly caretakers become enraged, and pawn off the good-hearted boy for a pittance, for only five pounds to the local undertaker.
There, too, Oliver is abused, and in a fit of desperation, runs away. On his journey he encounters the Artful Dodger, who takes him under his wing and into the seedy underside of London. Soon he joins a band of pickpockets who are controlled by Fagin, who welcomes Oliver and teaches him the trade of pick-pocketing. Only through resiliency on a hellish path of tribulations does Oliver eventually find true charity and salvation.
Exciting and challenging
Sophomore Christian Castro, who plays Fagin, said Thursday that this is an immensely challenging, but equally rewarding role. In addition being an old man with an English accent, the character is a complex tapestry of contradictions. On one hand he's a father figure to the pickpockets, and on the other, a thief.
"This is someone who is conflicted," Castro said, "which makes playing Fagin so exciting as an actor." Castro is a veteran of the Hoboken stage. Earlier this school year, he played Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and last year he was a principal actor in another large ensemble, "Ragtime."
"I'm really excited, because I really think this could be our best play yet," Castro said.
Junior Robert Pena, who plays the insidious Bill Sykes, said he relishes the opportunity to play the bad guy. "Bill Sykes is someone with great rage and anger," Pena said. "It's an amazing to get up there on stage and release all this stress, in a positive way."
More than a play
But Oliver! is more than just a simple musical at Hoboken High School, it's a full-on experience for these dedicated drama students. Being an urban school, rich with cultural and ethnic diversity, Paula Ohaus, the director of the production, has, over the years, strived to select plays that resonate social consciousness. That's why in the past three years she has hand-picked Ragtime, To Kill a Mockingbird, and West Side Story.
Oliver! is very much in this same vein. It's a story where Oliver was born into the lowest class as an orphan, with no rights. It takes the audience into the factories, orphanages, and grungy back allies of London. A grim setting indeed, but for Ohaus, it's the perfect opportunity to teach her students about social justice.
"To be able to play these parts, they have to have an understanding of the world that Oliver comes from," Ohaus said.
With that goal in mind, the student education about Victorian England has reached far beyond the stage. In Social Studies class, Hoboken High teachers taught a lesson on the industrial revolution. In English class, students read period literature, and even in science students learned about the physical effects of malnutrition brought about by extreme poverty.
"We want to connect what we are doing here in the theater to what is going on in their academic development," Ohaus said.
History of success
Since the theater program was revived in 1997, the students have performed The Wiz, Fiddler on the Roof, Once on this Island, Dreamgirls, To Kill a Mocking Bird, On with the Show, and Ragtime in front of sold-out audiences.
Once on this Island won the award from Paper Mill Playhouse for Best High School Musical in 1999. Paper Mill also runs summer theater programs for high school students.
In 1998, Hoboken High entered its first Paper Mill Playhouse competition with the production of Fiddler on the Roof and was nominated in three categories.
Reny Rosado, who played Tevye, was nominated for Best Actor and received a scholarship to attend an intensive summer workshop at Paper Mill.
In 1999, Hoboken High's production of Once on this Island won for Best Overall Musical in New Jersey at the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards. In addition, Erich Rausch won for Best Musical Director and Vadim Avksentyev won for Best Lighting.
In the fall of 1999, Hoboken High became part the "Adopt-a-School Program" sponsored by the Paper Mill Playhouse's Educational Department.
The following spring of 2000, Dreamgirls received nominations for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Graphics. Malachy Orozco won the Best Supporting Actor category.
In 2003, West Side Story received 13 Paper Mill Playhouse nominations including Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Choreography and Best Set Design. The school received more nominations than any other school in the state.
Most recently, Colleen Kirk won the Rising Star Award for Best Actress and Manny Medina won for Best Supporting Actor, for their turn in Ragtime.
Oliver! The Musical is directed by Paula Ohaus, music directed by Peter Ising, choreography by Jared Ramos, lighting design by Justin Partier and set design by Jen Price. Performances will be held at Hoboken High School, at Eighth and Clinton streets, on Friday April 22 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday April 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday April 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $5 for students and seniors. For ticket information, call (201) 356-3731 or visit www.hoboken.k12.nj.us.