Young thespians find opportunity in grim world of 'Oliver!'
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2010 - The dark Dickensian world of "Oliver!" portrays the dreary life of a hungry 9-year-old orphan searching for a sense of family while scraping through a hardscrabble existence.
That same grey and gritty world presents a bright opportunity for 16 children involved onstage and behind the scenes in an upcoming production of the play by Variety Children's Theatre.
Caleb Wells, 13, who has cerebral palsy, is working on his second theater production through Variety the Children's Charity, which serves St. Louis-area boys and girls with physical and mental disabilities.
In his role as assistant to "Oliver!" director Lara Teeter, Caleb has a chance to contribute through problem-solving. For example, during the rehearsal of a number called "I Shall Scream," Caleb figured out how to get characters Mr. Bumble and Widow Corny from one side of the stage to another in a way that jibed with the story.
Caleb's brainstorm for Mr. Bumble to nudge a basket of kittens along with his heel got the actors where they needed to go while staying true to the script. Full of ideas and not one to hold back his opinions, Caleb said he's grateful that Teeter "puts up with me."
"Sometimes I'm very outspoken," Caleb noted.
But Teeter has different words for Caleb's style: assertive and articulate.
"Part of being a good assistant is knowing when to speak up and when to keep quiet," Teeter said. "Caleb will come up to me with an idea and if I'm in the middle of a thought, I'll hold my hand up and say, 'Come back to me with that in a minute,' and he'll say, 'No problem,' and he does."
Pop Star Hopeful
While Caleb sees theater as more of an avocation (he's thinking of majoring in journalism and minoring in theater in college), Kaci Conley, 11, an "Oliver!" ensemble actor, sees a future in the footlights.
"My dream is to be a pop star," Kaci said.
Inspired by the likes of the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, Kaci, looks forward all week to the show's Sunday rehearsals. Using a wheelchair because of her muscular dystrophy, Kaci is as enthusiastic a dancer as she is a singer.
Like Caleb, Kaci is a veteran of the theater scene. Last year, she got her first taste of fame in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
"It feels great being onstage," Kaci said. "And it feels really great when the audience gives us a standing ovation."