Area kids having fun preparing for ‘Oliver!’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 8, 2000

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / July 5, 2000

RESERVE – “I know you are all supposed to talking amongst yourselves, but kids, you have to listen for those cues.”Director Chip Stelz sat on the stage of the St. John Theater looking like aserene Buddha as he quietly admonished his cast of would-be orphans and pickpockets.

It seems the cast of youngsters had forgotten to laugh when the character Fagin made a joke.

“OK. Let’s try it again,” said Stelz.This time the cast laughs long and hard right on cue and Stelz is satisfied.

In three weeks the St. John Theater will open its summer production of”Oliver!,”the musical based on the Charles Dickens’ classic, “Oliver Twist.”Stelz, a 20-year veteran of the stage, is working overtime to mold a cast of 20 children ranging in age from 8 to 15 into a believable gang of singing, dancing pickpockets.

“If you had asked me 10 years ago,” admitted Stelz, “I would never have thought I would be working with kids.”It seems Stelz is drowning in kid actors. During the day he is directing acast of 30 children in “The Wizard of Oz” at the Rivertown Repertory Theater in Kenner. At night he commutes to Reserve to handle directingduties for “Oliver!.” After that he will be conducting a children’s actingworkshop at the St. John Theatre starting July 24.The cast of “Oliver!” started out with 40 children.

“I was really surprised to see so many child performers from this area,” said Stelz.

However, as time went on, there were the inevitable drop outs, and Stelz is now working with 20 young actors. He expects some more drop outsbefore opening curtain and said he will be happy if he ends up with 15 actors.

Sterling Snowdy, musical director for “Oliver!” and board member of the St. John Theatre, is enthusiastic about the production.”We are very lucky to get Chip as the director,” said Snowdy. “We have alot of new kids here, and he is good with kids.”The children actors also seem very enthusiastic about being on stage.

“This is so much fun,” said Elizabeth Desimone, a 13-year-old eighth- grader at St. Joan of Arc School. She plays several parts in the play – anorphan, a porter, a milk maid, Old Annie and a “saucy barroom wench.””This is my first time with a lot of lines,” said Desimone, “and that makes it even more fun.”Chris Day, a novice on stage, is 11 years old and goes to LaPlace Elementary.

He gushed, “I’m having a lot of fun. This is so cool.”His friend, 9-year-old Joshua Brumfield, said, “I like the marching and dancing.”Chris’ dad, Reid Day, who plays Fagin, thinks working with kids in a play really adds energy to the production.

“This is really great, I really like working with kids.” said Day.Stage manager Debbie Labit has to take some of these kids by the hand and teach them the basics of stage movement.

Off on one corner of the stage Labit is asking a group of kids, “OK. Nowwhat is downstage? What is upstage? Stage left?” The kids answer eagerly pointing in the correct directions.

“It is a blocking nightmare,” Day whispered, then chuckled. “With all thesekids, it is not easy.”While “Fagin’s Den” works on the song “Consider Yourself” with Stelz and Labit, the two young stars of the show are off by themselves memorizing lines.

Joshua Eichhorn plays the lead role of Oliver, and Phillip Hutchins plays Oliver’s friend, Dodger. At 12 years old both boys are experienced pros inthe world of theater.

This is Eichhorn’s fourth appearance on the stage. He also has two yearssinging experience in the choir and plays the piano.

Hutchins is also an old hand at drama, having worked in several productions in St. Charles and St. John parishes. He plays guitar and piano,sings and says “he works in the arts.”Both boys want to make a career in show business.

“I like showing off my talents to the audience,” Eichhorn said. “I like tomake an audience laugh or cry.”Hutchins likes the theater for other reasons.

“I like making friends with cast members,” he said, “and I like to hear the audience clapping.”Not all the kids want to make show business their life’s work.

“It would be nice to be on Broadway,” said Desimone. “But I really don’twant to do all the hard work to get there.”For most of these kids the play is fun and something to do during summer vacation, and judging by their excitement this production will be very high-spirited.

Stelz has no trouble keeping the normal hyperactivity of a bunch of children in check. He reigns over his little stage kingdom with quietintensity. Even when he is chastising some kids for being out of line, henever raises his voice. The children respond to his directions quickly andwith respect.

Snowdy expects a very big audience for this musical.

“The size of the audience is a function of the size of the cast,” Snowdy said with a smile.

With a cast of 60, “Oliver!” should fill the St. John Theatre to the rafters.”Oliver!” runs from July 21-23 and July 26-29 at St. John Theatre on RiverRoad in Reserve. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. except for the July 23performance, which is a matinee and starts at 2:30 p.m.Tickets, on sale at Allied Express at 101 Carrollwood Ave. in LaPlace, are$8 for adults and $4 for children 12 and under. For more information call651-9322 In addition, anyone who would like to register for the Children’s Acting Workshop that begins on July 24 should call Karen Duffy at 653-3423.

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