As The Park Players’ production of “Oliver!” completes its run this weekend at The Church of the Good Shepherd, 1576 Palisade Ave., Fort Lee, the actors have had a variety of experiences portraying it’s cast of 19th century street characters.
Executive Producer Joseph Conklin and his brother, Players co-chairman John Fiorenza Conklin, both played characters in the musical, which is based on the Charles Dickens 1838 novel “Oliver Twist” with book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart.
“With this generation, those portraying Dickens characters today may have a different outlook,” said Joseph.
The show allowed a wide array of ages to participate.
“[It’s a] great show involving children that allows the opportunity for camaraderie and an ensemble of kids,” said Joseph.
The Park Players stayed true to the original novel during the musical’s run. The story is about an orphan, Oliver Twist, who endures a miserable existence in a workhouse and then goes to work with an undertaker. He escapes and travels to London where he meets the Artful Dodger, leader of a gang of juvenile pickpockets. Oliver is led to the lair of their elderly criminal trainer Fagin, where he remains naively unaware of their unlawful activities.
“With this generation, those portraying Dickens characters today may have a different outlook.” – Joseph Fiorenza Conklin
Relating to the characters
Although the musical premiered in 1960, some cast members managed to relate to certain characters. One of them is Nancy, a young prostitute and one of Fagin’s former pickpockets. Her love with Bill Sikes, played by Craig Clarke, is turbulent, and he eventually takes her life.
Some cast members identified with the character of Nancy for her abusive relationship with Bill Sikes.
“I relate to Nancy, being that I have recently come out of a static relationship, minus the tossing,” joked Kathleen Gentile, who played the character.
“I can relate to Nancy, having had my share of toxic relationships and being in love with the wrong guy,” said Judy Espaillat, who plays Mrs. Bumble. “Thankfully, I was able to escape mainly unscathed, and learned how to never fall victim to an abusive relationship again.”
Even young Oliver, Ryan Espaillat, couldn’t relate to the cast of crooks but connected with the eagerness of Oliver’s appetite.
The Conklin brothers also sounded off on their characters.
“Yes, I believe the boys needed some form of structure in their lives and I truly believe he did care for them,” said Joseph, who played Fagin, overlord of the pick pocket gang.
Supporting this view, Joseph cited the song “Be Back Soon,” when Fagin says, “Be back soon, I don’t know, somehow I’ll miss you.”
John, on the other hand, who played Mr. Bumble, had little in common with his character.
“I feel that Bumble and I are opposite in our beliefs, so portraying him was a good challenge for me creatively,” said John.
Cast members said they enjoyed different parts of the musical. Gentile felt the song “You’ve Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two” was entertaining. Espaillat, while playing Oliver, thoroughly enjoyed the fun in the song, “Be Back Soon.” Melissa Gaeta Montijo, who plays Strawberry-Seller enjoyed the light-hearted “Who Will Buy?” Montijo said she also looks forward to the ending of each performance because Oliver gets his family back.
Meet the cast
The play was directed by Trisha Johnson with David Bernales as the musical director and Judy Espaillat as choreographer.
Fagin’s pick-pocketing orphans are played by Ryan Espaillat, Jayson Briones, Vincent Meglio, Melissa Gaeta Montijo and Noah Santos. The Artful Dodger is played by Julianna Meglio and Nicolette Cruz. The Dodger’s sidekick, Charley Bates is played by Nicolette Cruz and Julianna Meglio.
The production completes its run this weekend with performances on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 20 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $16 for adults, $14 for student and seniors, and $12 for groups of ten or more. Tickets can be purchased at www.brownpapertickets.com or by visiting www.parkplayers.com.
Vanessa Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org