BRATTEBORO -- "Oliver!" is an uplifting and inspiring musical to be sure, but maybe it inspires people in the wrong ways.
"I saw this when I was younger, and I wanted to be a pickpocket," said Isaac Freitas-Eagan, who apparently has since abandoned those career aspirations.
Instead he’s an aspiring actor and part of the large New England Youth Theatre cast that’s been working on the beloved musical based on Charles Dickens’ novel "Oliver Twist" and set in a teeming London underworld full of rogues, pickpockets, bad characters, a few good souls and one very lovable orphan boy.
First performed at NEYT in 2006 -- the last show presented in its old storefront theater on Main Street -- "Oliver!" is being reprised, now in NEYT’s spacious Flat Street facility. "Oliver!" opens tonight and runs through Dec. 15, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.
That a young child would want, at least temporarily, to grow up and become a pickpocket is testament to the power of Dickens’ writing and to the colorful, complex ways they are brought to life on stage. Add to that, a raft of memorable tunes, including "Food Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself," "You’ve Got to Pick-a-Pocket or Two," "I’d Do Anything," "Oom Pah Pah" and "As Long As He Needs Me" -- and you’ve got the recipe for a smash hit, which "Oliver!" has been since its London premiere in 1960.
It also has the one ingredient director -- and NEYT Founder and Artistic Director -- Stephen Stearns requires of a holiday season show -- a miracle.
"I think the miracle of this show is that someone so destitute and so beaten and hurt by people and society can never lose a good heart, and that good heart can win the day," said Stearns, who directs a cast of more than 40 kids who range in age from 7-18.
A classic story of redemption, the show’s miraculous message shines through a setting filled with darkness, badness and characters who do what they have to do just to survive.
"It’s one of those shows that’s not all peaches and cream. It’s got that dark, Dickensian side," said Stearns. "Nobody wrote characters like Dickens wrote characters."
And that has the NEYT cast members excited.
"A lot of us are really rounded characters," said the show’s Fagin, Maia Struthers-Friedman, who explained that the actors spent a lot of time working on their characters, trying to bring the full richness of the show to life.
"It shows the humanity in all these characters. It shows they have emotions, and they have compassion," said Sophie Bady-Kaye, who plays Bet.
"This show has so much good and evil in each character," added Maia Gilmour, who plays Nancy. "I would want people to come out of this accepting who you really are."
Sure, this show has catchy dance numbers, highly hummable tunes and an optimistic message that goodness prevails, but ultimately it is about humanity. After all, it does extend the invitation in song to "Consider yourself, one of the family."
"A lot of musicals really are show-tuney and all jazz hands, but this one has some feeling to it. It’s just a perfect mix of the good and the bad," said Gable Rak.
"It’s not really feel-good, but it makes you feel so good," summed up Ali Brodeur, the stage manager for the production. "Overall, it’s an amazing show."
Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at www.neyt.org or in person/by phone at the box office on Wednesdays from noon to 5 p.m. The New England Youth Theatre is located at 100 Flat St. Call 802-246-6398.
Sponsors include Berkley & Veller Greenwood Country Realtors and The Richards Group.